Oil Spill Poses New Threat to Mauritius’s Tourism Industry

Tourism in Mauritius collapsed after the government cut the island off from the world to get the coronavirus outbreak under control. The country’s worst-ever ecological disaster could spell further trouble for an industry that its economic lifeblood.

Fuel oil from a stranded bulk carrier is polluting delicate ecosystems and the Blue Bay Marine Park reserve, which is popular with snorkelers. The MV Wakashio leaked at least 1,000 tons of black sludge into the turquoise waters off the Indian Ocean island’s southeastern coast after it ran aground on July 25. The vessel’s bunker tanker breached after days of bad weather and “constant pounding,” according to its owner, Nagashiki Shipping Co. Ltd.

The oil spill is a threat to the livelihoods of communities that depend on the ocean, and the salvage efforts, which the government said it was unable to start immediately because it lacked the resources, arrived too late for much of the area’s marine wildlife.

The disaster comes at a time when the government is under increasing pressure to reopen the airport and rescue the tourist industry, which generated $1.6 billion last year and employs about a fifth of the country’s workforce.

“We’re concerned about the impact of the environmental crises on the brand image of Mauritius as a tourism destination,” said Karine Curé, chief communication officer at New Mauritius Hotels, which owns and manages the Beachcomber brand of family resorts.

‘Front-Page News’

“The fuel spilling from MV Wakashio is making front-page news of foreign media around the world and we are all aware that tourism is vulnerable to public perception,” she said.

There are still 150 cubic meters of fuel to be pumped from the stranded vessel, Alain Donat, director of shipping at the Ministry of Blue Economy, Marine Resources, Fisheries and Shipping, said Thursday. Local residents are helping to scoop up the sludge from the beaches.

Before the pandemic struck, about 1.4 million tourists per year -- more than the island’s total population -- descended on its seaside resorts and white-sand beaches, which are its main draw. In the first three months of 2020 alone, Mauritius received some 305,000 travelers.

But by late March, the government abruptly closed its harbor and airport when it found the first three cases of the coronavirus. Police and the army were deployed to enforce a stringent lockdown a week later. While it has managed to get the outbreak under control and keep the number of cases at just 344 since April, it’s held regular meetings with the private sector to discuss how it can let tourists back in.

Seychelles Reopened

“It’s too soon to estimate the extent of this environmental damage on our business,” said François Eynaud, chief executive officer of Sun Resorts, which owns and manages four hotels on the island. “With no announcement to date of when the Mauritian borders will reopen, the tour operators, on whom we are heavily dependent, are reluctant to recommend the destination.”

The economy is likely to shrink by a record 13% this year and the national carrier, Air Mauritius, was placed under voluntary administration. Seychelles, a nearby Indian Ocean archipelago that competes with Mauritius for high-end tourists, already reopened its airport on Aug. 1.

“With the emergence of Covid-19 that we have been able to contain, the tourism sector is already in a fighting mood to get back on its feet,” said Jocelyn Kwok, chief executive officer of the national hotel and restaurant owners’ association. “Now, we are facing a double challenge.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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