Feb 2021 Interview with Sylvestre Radegonde, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Tourism, Seychelles
Prisma Reports (PR): You have recently assumed office and hold some challenging, yet exciting portfolios. Could you share with us some of your priorities and objectives?
Sylvestre Radegonde (SR): Indeed, these are definitely two exciting portfolios — tourism and foreign affairs — and I could not have wished for a better mix of responsibilities. The new President wants to have a better synergy between our foreign policy and tourism marketing, and make it such that tourism marketing becomes one of the priorities of our foreign policy so that the two work toward that same goal of promoting Seychelles.
In terms of foreign affairs, as a Small Island Developing State (SIDS) we have some vital interests that we need to promote and defend on the international scene. Climate change is a key priority for us, everything to do with protection of the environment, vulnerabilities of small island states and, of course, with the current situation we live in, into that mix now comes the indebtedness of small states whose economy depends primarily on tourism. Seychelles’ economy is based primarily on tourism, although we are now trying to diversify into agriculture and fisheries so as to balance that out.
Until that happens, tourism remains the mainstay of our economy and we’ve been hit hard over the last year with the pandemic. In terms of revenue, we’ve lost more than 70% of all our revenues and, as a result, everything has almost ground to a standstill. Our challenge to date is to get the economy back on its feet again, and that will have to start with tourism. Among some of the measures that we’ve taken is that we’re launching a massive vaccination campaign: we’re hoping that by mid-March we will have 70% of our population vaccinated to provide herd immunity so that we may open up our border wider for tourists.
We have had a challenge in supporting the tourism trade to keep all of the hotels and businesses associated with tourism going for the past year or so, for them to be able to remain open, keep their employees and prepare themselves for the day, hopefully soon, when tourism will start again. The government took certain measures at a tremendous cost to the country. We had a system whereby we supported the payment of salaries by hotels. It’s been at a 100% level. Now, as we approach March and April, this will be reduced to 50%. In parallel to that, we had a program of upscaling and rescaling — training people who have traditionally been in the tourism industry so that they can move away and find other occupations. These are very challenging times but we’re now starting to see light at the end of the tunnel.
(PR): How receptive do you expect the new U.S. administration to be toward climate change and SIDS issues?
(SR): The new U.S. administration has yet to define exactly what its policies are regarding both our region, Africa, and SIDSs. Regarding climate change, the declaration made by President Biden about rejoining the Paris accord is encouraging for us.
(PR): How can you translate the current global challenges and opportunities to make tourism in the Seychelles more competitive in the future?
(SR): Competitive is a key word there. Especially now, when people start to travel again there will certainly be a limited number of people able and willing to travel, and probably a lot more destinations. Like a beauty contest, each tourist destination will have to make themselves as attractive as possible. Price will always be a factor, but more than that I think that the reflection we’ll be having in Seychelles is to have a value-for-money concept: rather than necessarily pushing your price down, making sure that the visitor has value for each dollar spent in our country. We are diversifying our tourism product. In fact, this is one of the things I pushed when I took over this portfolio, for us to have as wide a variety of local activities as possible. We want to bring tourism closer to the local population. We’re encouraging each village and each district in the country to look at ways and means of creating activities — cultural and otherwise — to attract tourists to their village district.
(PR): You expect the country to be open for tourists by mid-March. What are your main targets for the next 18 to 24 months?
(SR): In terms of tourism markets, the main one for Seychelles is, obviously, Western Europe. I think it will remain that way for quite a while. The challenge we have, being so far away from everywhere, is connectivity. We have to depend a lot on the availability of airlines that fly either regularly or charters. We see a lot of potential in markets like Israel, the Middle East, Russia and the countries of the former Soviet Union. I think these are the countries and regions that we should focus on going forward.
(PR): What is Seychelles’ unique value proposition?
(SR): Our unique selling point, apart from the beauty of the place, is that it is a safe destination and environmentally very clean. I would say the environment would be our highest value proposition.
(PR): With regard to foreign affairs, what are your top priorities?
(SR): We want to be a leader in the Indian Ocean. We want to be a spokesperson, hopefully one that is listened to, on environmental issues, on the blue economy, and on SIDS issues.
(PR): Where would you like to see the Seychelles in the next 5 to 10 years?
(SR): In 10 years we want to see Seychelles as beautiful as ever and as environmentally sustainable as it is today. I would like to see it remain a clean and safe destination. I see a country at peace with itself, secure within its borders, having resolved all the problems that were inherited. I see a nation that is more united, where national reconciliation has been more ingrained in the culture. Generally, I would like to see a more prosperous, forward-looking, and optimistic nation.