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«Trumping the Ethnic Card: How Tourism Entrepreneurs on Rodrigues tackled the 2008 Financial Crisis Carsten Wergin Social Policy Research Centre The ...»

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Island Studies Journal, Vol. 7, No.1, 2012, pp. 119-134

Trumping the Ethnic Card: How Tourism Entrepreneurs on Rodrigues tackled the 2008

Financial Crisis

Carsten Wergin

Social Policy Research Centre

The University of New South Wales

Sydney, Australia


Abstract: The 2008 global financial crisis had significant repercussions on small island states

and territories. This article discusses the efforts of tourism entrepreneurs from Rodrigues, a

subnational island jurisdiction and a dependency of the Republic of Mauritius, to combat those effects by organizing themselves as the group Associations du Tourisme Réunies (ATR). Their aim was to secure subsidies from the Mauritian government to reduce the price of airfares to Rodrigues so as to attract more tourists to the island. The article offers an ethnographic account of how the economic crisis was tackled in a creative way by ATR and how its members put the negative image of a Creole minority suppressed by a Hindu majority to strategic use to achieve a stronger recognition of Rodriguan interests within the Republic of Mauritius.

Keywords: ethnicity; global financial crisis; islands; Mauritius; Rodrigues; tourism © 2012 Institute of Island Studies, University of Prince Edward Island, Canada Introduction The 2008 financial crisis has had a strong impact all over the world; many consider it to be the most significant financial meltdown since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Small island states and territories dependent on tourism were particularly affected by its related significant decline in consumer wealth. With less money to spend, there were less people who could afford a holiday in remote destinations. Consequently, there were fewer tourists who travelled there. Mauritius is a particular case in point where tourism, together with the sugarcane and textile industries, is traditionally considered the third pillar of the economy (Aladin, 1993;

Bunwaree, 2001; Dommen & Dommen, 1999; Lincoln, 2006).

This article centres on an organization formed by tourism entrepreneurs from the small island of Rodrigues, a subnational island jurisdiction and a dependency of the Republic of Mauritius, called Associations du Tourisme Réunies (ATR). In order to tackle the problems triggered by the significant drop in visitor numbers due to the 2008 global financial crisis, ATR sought to secure subsidized airfares to attract more tourists to their island. I accompanied their representatives during their negotiation process with the Mauritian government. The analysis shows how the group made creative use of ethnic difference to achieve goals that went beyond mere financial support; namely a stronger recognition of Creole/Rodriguan interests and ethnic diversity within Mauritian society as a whole. For this, economic misfits and ethnic conflict between Mauritius and its small island dependency Rodrigues, in particular those affecting C. Wergin people’s mobilities, are analysed ethnographically (Tsing, 2000; Lash & Urry, 1994; Neveling & Wergin, 2009; Wynne, 2005).

The article discusses events on Rodrigues, using the ATR initiative to present the regional-toglobal interconnections of the island set out in the realms of tourism development and challenges faced by the 2008 global financial crisis. This includes the assessment of the wider interests of the ATR members as part of a well-educated Société Civil. Particular attention will be paid to the historical specificity of events surrounding the negotiations of Rodriguan tourism entrepreneurs with the Mauritian government, as well as to the alliances they formed to achieve their goals. This will construct a larger picture of current Rodriguan socio-cultural politics as a regional process with “open-ended indeterminacy” (Tsing, 2000: 349). But, before that, a historical overview of Rodrigues that includes its past and current political and sociocultural situation.


In 1528, the Portuguese sailor Diego Rodriguez discovered an island that was to bear his name:

109km2 of volcanic land, almost entirely surrounded by a 90km2 coral reef that has created a lagoon twice the size of the island. Its highest point is Mont Limon with an elevation of about 355m. Rodrigues is a hybrid cultural space. It was uninhabited before colonization. The island’s contemporary population is based on migration, deportation, exile, and slavery. The majority speaks a distinct Creole. English and French are mainly used in administrative contexts and in school. Today, about 35,000 people live on the island. As many Rodriguans live on Mauritius, and about 10,000 have migrated to Australia.

Key challenges for the people living on Rodrigues include a lack of industrial development and, related to this, a high unemployment rate. The small island caters to tourism imaginaries of a place ‘frozen in time’ and ‘unspoiled by development’. Reasons for this are (1) its geographical isolation about 560km east of Mauritius; and (2) the cultural and economic neglect of its Creole population by a Hindu-dominated ‘mother(is)land’. Creoles are traditionally considered under-represented within the Republic of Mauritius (Eriksen, 1998;

Selvon, 2005). Politically, a Hindu majority dominates Mauritius, while the Franco-Mauritian minority owns most of the land (Eisenlohr, 2006; Mukonoweshuro, 1991). In the 1982 census, the term Creole was used to describe all those Mauritians who are descendants of African slaves. In the Republic of Mauritius, the Indo-Mauritians constitute 68% of the total population (and 52% of Mauritians are Hindu); Creoles account for about 27% of the population. In sharp contrast, Creoles make up around 97% of the residents of Rodrigues; and the same proportion upholds the Catholic faith there. These are two significant differences to the population of multiethnic Mauritius that have resulted in longstanding ethnic conflicts and a continued Malaise Créole (Boswell, 2006; Greig et al., 2011; Carroll & Carroll, 2000a).

Poverty, especially within the Creole minority, threatens Mauritian social cohesion (Bunwaree & Kasenally, 2007). The possibility of uprisings against the state authorities that might result from this was first highlighted by riots in 1999, after the death of the island’s most popular Creole Seggae singer Kaya. Those presented the strongest case of civic violence since Mauritian independence (Laville, 2000). Compared to similar events elsewhere, these riots

120 Trumping the Ethnic Card in Rodrigues

may appear of minor significance; yet, Mauritian authorities began to realize how fragile their peaceful ‘rainbow nation’ actually was (Carroll & Carroll, 2000a; Miles, 1999; Bunwaree, 2002). This is especially critical for Mauritius as a tourist destination, where “Trouble in Paradise” would damage the island’s widely touted reputation as a stable society and polity (Carroll & Carroll, 2000b; AfDB-OECD, 2008). Yet, while social democracy and the welfare state remain part of Mauritius’ political philosophy (Kasenally, 2011; Khoodabux, 2000;

Bräutigam, 1997), inequalities and the economic effects of globalization continue to undermine the official discourse of a peaceful multiethnic society (Greig et al., 2011).

The ethnic conflict between Hindus and Creoles within the Republic of Mauritius becomes even more apparent in the case of Rodrigues. The great majority of Rodriguans see themselves in a disadvantaged position within the Republic of Mauritius because of their Creole descent, especially when it comes to important political decisions. Rodrigues has had limited access to decision-making processes. First under British rule, it was of no particular strategic or economic relevance to the colonizer. After Mauritian independence in 1968, its political dependency on Mauritius set it further apart, as efforts made by the political authorities for socio-economic improvement focused almost exclusively on the ‘mother(is)land’. In both cases, this is partly due to the fact that Rodrigues is located in a remote location. The nearest international airport is on Mauritius, which is also the only destination for flights from Rodrigues. The closest harbour is Port Louis, also on Mauritius, roughly a 36-hour boat journey away. Consequently, all tourists (except for individual sailors that travel the Indian Ocean on their yachts) need to pass via Mauritius in order to reach the island.

The impact of the economic crisis of 2008 was compounded by the unique characteristics of the island’s natural environment and the aforementioned considerable isolation from other countries, as well as ethnic differences that separate it from Mauritius. Apart from diverse employment opportunities related to the tourism sector, economic resources on Rodrigues are limited to fishing, agriculture and day-to-day businesses. Main incomes, apart from social benefits accruing from the Mauritian authorities, are generated through public sector jobs (especially civil service and education). Furthermore, today, there is a wide range of political and economic interests at play since Rodrigues received the official status of autonomy within the Republic of Mauritius in 2001. This gave the island’s Chief Commissioner (CC) in agreement with his local government, the Rodrigues Regional Assembly (RRA), the right to spend money from a yearly budget allocated to him by Mauritian authorities.

Today, Rodriguans demand and depend on their share of tourism income generated in Mauritius. The following section provides an ethnography of how the economic crisis was tackled in a creative way by ATR and how its members put the negative image of a Creole minority suppressed by a Hindu majority into strategic use to gain support for their struggling tourism sector. This will account for ways in which local ethnic conflict continues to inform economics, politics and everyday practices in Mauritius. In doing so, the article adds a ‘Rodriguan’ layer to existing observations and argues that debates about ethnicity and political discrimination have not lost their importance in Mauritius; rather, their significance to concrete historic events where local elites find new ways and means to make use of them in support of their interests may need to be reconsidered.

–  –  –

The ATR Experience My seven-month fieldwork on Rodrigues was focused on initiatives for the further development of the local tourism industry and its significance for Rodriguan culture and identity politics. I had visited the island before, in 2003. At the time, many of its inhabitants seemed enthusiastic about the prospect of turning Rodrigues into a new destination for what at that time had been identified as upcoming sustainable and eco-tourism (Williams, 2004). On my return, six years later, I expected to see some of the fruits of this promising plan. I was surprised, however, to note that not much had changed. A new tourism office had opened, and also a new hotel, Pointe Vénus. Conversely, another hotel had closed, and another ran out of business during my stay. The local tourism industry was obviously suffering from significant shortages in guest arrivals (see Table 1). In addition, the only airline assuring the connection between Mauritius and Rodrigues, Air Mauritius, had reduced its flights from up to six to two, sometimes only one, per day. As such, instead of tourism development triggered through the global interest in sustainable tourist destinations and islands ‘unspoiled by development’1, the economic crisis of 2008 had become a serious threat to what until then had been a growing tourism sector, which now began to strongly affect the local economy, infrastructure and well being of the Rodriguan people as a whole.

–  –  –

(Source: RRA-Magazine 2010).2 As a response, local tourism entrepreneurs and associations, from hotel owners to dive instructors, formed Associations du Tourisme Réunies (ATR). Its name was deliberately chosen. The abbreviation ATR made reference to ATR 72, the plane used by Air Mauritius on the route between Rodrigues and its ‘mother(is)land’; the very object through which the global economic crisis materialized itself on Rodrigues. ATR was founded as a reaction to the Rodriguan budget presented in early 2009, which did not (in the opinion of its members) foresee the appropriate measures to help the Rodriguan tourism industry regain its strength.

Their initial idea was to convince the Mauritian government to deduct the fuel tax from the 1 Upon googling the term “unspoiled by development”, on 7 February 2012, five out of the first 10 results of an estimated 2,840,000 hits used this phrase to advertise tourist destinations.

2 The significant drop in tourist arrivals between 2004 and 2005 is largely related to the outbreak of Chikungunya on Réunion Island, Mauritius and Rodrigues. This is an insect-borne virus transmitted to humans by mosquitoes.

Tourists were worried that they might be infected with this virus whose symptoms are similar to dengue fever.

122 Trumping the Ethnic Card in Rodrigues

cost of ticket sales for flights to and from Rodrigues. The resulting significant decrease in ticket prices was meant to boost the local tourism industry. If Mauritian authorities would not accept the necessary changes to the budget proposal that would be asked for by the Rodrigues Regional Assembly (RRA), the deputies of the RRA were asked not to accept the proposal either. Two further requests for support were sent out by ATR, one to the Prime Minister of Mauritius Navin Ramgoolam, the other to the then leader of the opposition party on Rodrigues, Organisation Du People Rodriguais (OPR), Serge Clair.

The members of ATR were not satisfied by the response of the Mauritian authorities to their request. On offer was a token deduction of the state fuel tax by 150 MUR (about US$6) per ticket between Mauritius and Rodrigues, a return trip that cost about 8,000 MUR (US$320) at the time. A further request of ATR to meet the Prime Minister personally was not answered.

Even worse, ATR found that the Mauritian authorities, rather than using their suggestion to introduce promotional prices on airfares to help Rodrigues, had implemented a very similar scheme to increase tourism between Réunion Island (a neighbouring French overseas department) and Mauritius, leaving Rodrigues even more marginalized.

My first meeting with ATR was after these initial events, on a rainy day in early June 2009.

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