Paradise lost?

For eight weeks Mauritius has been transfixed by events in the island’s Supreme Court as two men stood trial and were acquitted for the murder of Irish honeymooner Michaela McAreavey. David Young assesses the Mauritian perspective on proceedings and whether that holiday paradise image has been tarnished forever

Paradise lost?

THE first restaurant Trishi Sanassee’s uncle took him to when he visited Ireland served only Mauritian food.

He had fried noodles, a speciality of the Indian Ocean island, when all he really wanted to try was “a glass of stout and fish and chips”.

The hotel manager tells the story about his unadventurous Dublin-based relative not to bemoan missing out on local staples, but to highlight one way he believes Mauritius can convince the Irish to return to his homeland in the wake of Michaela McAreavey’s murder.

“People from there are used to coming here, but there are many Mauritians who are settled in Ireland too,” he says.

“We have a connection there, so I think we can convince this market to come back to Mauritius. Also here we are working on it, we are trying to give the best service in all the hotels, to put heart in what we do, in the work we do. That’s the only way we can get back the trust of the Irish people and to get them back visiting Mauritius.”

There are an estimated 3,000 Mauritians living in Ireland, but before the death of the daughter of Tyrone GAA boss Mickey Harte more than that number of Irish visited their country of birth each and every year.

Not any more.

The trial of the two hotel workers accused of strangling the honeymooner at the exclusive Legends resort last January made headlines all over Ireland.

But in Mauritius the case was also given a profile seldom witnessed in its recent history.

There was of course empathy with the heartbreaking story, but the death of a visitor in a country so dependent on the tourist industry meant there was an added interest in events unfolding inside the always packed court room five of the Supreme Court in Port Louis.

Defence lawyer Rama Valayden summed it up when he described it as the first court case since independence in 1968 which had seen the island’s reputation put on trial.

Assessing the murder’s impact on Irish visitor numbers is not an exact science, but there appears little doubt there has been one.

There are no direct flights to the island from Ireland, so there are no accurate departure figures to analyse.

Mauritian statisticians are more instructive.

While official publications heap Ireland in with other smaller nations in a wide ranging ‘others’ category, the specific data is available on request.

In 2010, the year before Mrs McAreavey’s death, 3,460 Irish citizens visited the island. The following year the number dipped significantly to 2,717.

Given that many of those trips would have been booked and paid for prior to the murder on Jan 10, 2011, it would not be a huge leap to speculate that many of those who travelled may no longer have considered it their number one choice.

Last autumn some Irish travel agents reported that the number of couples selecting Mauritius as their honeymoon destination had dropped markedly.

Information on the number of British passport holders arriving on the island published by the Mauritian authorities also shows a sizeable fall off last year compared to the 2010.

Around 97,500 landed in 2010, while only 88,200 chose Mauritius in 2011.

The figures are not readily available, but it would be telling to know how many British passport holders from Northern Ireland chose Mauritius as a destination in 2011 compared to 2010.

Wider trends must be factored in, particularly the economic downturn, but in a year that saw overall visitor numbers rise, something was certainly putting the Irish and British off.

In the same period the number of French and German tourists increased. The popularity of Mauritius elsewhere around the world was also on the up.

In 2010, almost 11,500 Australians paid a visit to the island — in 2011 the number topped 15,700. A total of 3,619 Canadians visited in 2010; in 2011 it was 3,887.

In its advice to citizens, the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office makes direct reference to the murder.

“Mauritius is a country with low levels of crime and instances such as this are very uncommon, ” it adds.

“But as when travelling anywhere you should remain vigilant and exercise caution.”

Interestingly, there is no such reference to Mrs McAreavey’s death in the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs online advice to those travelling to the island.

Mr Sanassee, who is rooms manager at the Port Chambly hotel north of Port Louis, has no doubt the murder put off would-be Irish visitors, “There was an impact in Ireland certainly,” he says.

“There was quite an impact because the family was so well known and through the media information goes very fast, and also through the web today. We were certain it had a big impact on our Ireland market.”

Few Irishmen are better placed to assess his country’s links with Mauritius than 95-year-old missionary priest Bernard Farrelly.

He first arrived on Jan 31, 1949, as a young cleric and instantly fell in love with the place.

Apart from a number of years spent in Nigeria in the 1950s and 1960s, he has lived in Mauritius ever since.

The cleric, who retired to a little bungalow on the grounds of a cathedral outside Port Louis, has nothing but kind words for Mauritians.

“They are very nice, they are very welcoming people,” he says.

“Very nice and they are very, very good people.”

The Cavan native smiles when he reflects on a religious make up of an island that is very different from his homeland.

“They are not very keen on going to mass,” he laughs.

“An awful lot of them don’t go to Mass.”

Around 30% of Mauritians are Christian, with Hindu the dominant faith.

There were few if any tourists who visited Mauritius when Fr Farrelly embarked on a six-week boat trip to his new home back in the 1940s.

He jokes that one airline was nicknamed “Air Chance” back in those days, such were the risks of long-haul flights.

But he has witnessed the tourist industry evolve and develop in the last seven decades.

In the 1940s and 50s the only Irish who came to the island tended to be missionaries, now they are holidaymakers.

“I don’t see them, but they do come,” he explains.

“I had two nieces for instance who visited the country since I came here, they came out and they were to come back.

“But then this McAreavey tragedy happened — a young couple came after their wedding for their honeymoon and the girl was killed.”

The former Blackrock College pupil, who says local people prayed for the Co Tyrone teacher following her death, has fears the murder will change foreigners’ view of the island. Something he thinks would be unfair.

“The papers are filled with it every day,” he says.

“It’s not normal, I don’t know why it happened at all, it’s mysterious.

“It might have an adverse effect on the tourism because Mauritius has a great reputation for hospitality, or it had anyway until that — it may damage its good reputation.

“The people are very friendly, Mauritians are very friendly. That’s the reputation they have at the present, that may do a lot of damage to the reputation of the people.”

Devpal is a solicitor based in Port Louis. Although a civil litigator he often dropped into the Supreme Court to see how the trial was proceeding. He too was aware of its significance.

“The whole country was shocked and condemned the act of violence and death of such a person who was our guest,” says the Port Louis-based lawyer.

“They were here for the best and memorable time of their life. Any reasonable person would not be ready to have a bad experience of their life overseas.”

The solicitor believes the volume of media coverage on the crime did hit the tourist industry.

“It had an impact on tourism both locally and internationally,” he says.

“So far as Ireland is concerned, the press articles definitely had an impact upon us.”

But he argues that the tourism issue was not the foremost reason the case captured the public imagination.

“For the local people, the trial has been of interest only to see that justice is done for the victims and that we do not lose the perception that we’re not fair in our society,” he says.

Throughout the eight weeks of the case it was seldom off the front pages of the newspapers or down the running order of the broadcasters.

A British colony for 150 years with the French, Dutch and Portuguese all having laid claim to it in the centuries before that, the island’s links with Europe are still tangible.

This was neatly encapsulated during the sixth week when the local paper — The Independent — had a story on the trial placed beside a front page picture of the Queen’s historic handshake with Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness back in Belfast.

The local media’s appetite for the trial saw court reporting laws stretched to the limits, and on occasion disregarded outright, with some outlets postulating theories and publishing material that was not before the jury.

It was clear many people did not want to believe anyone from Mauritius would do such a thing.

Some local media organisations appeared to play into that, seizing on stories that undermined the prosecution case.

That in turn saw defence lawyers’ unjustified insinuations of a malevolent role by Mrs McAreavey’s widower John gain traction.

Attacking the husband’s character, in a roundabout way, exonerated Mauritius, so for many it was an easy route to take, regardless if the evidence indicated otherwise.

It explains the sometimes less than sympathetic coverage of a widower who had made the painful journey back to the island where he lost the love of his life.

But this was by no means the pervasive feeling. Just as many locals felt deeply about Mr McAreavey.

No more so than when he took to the witness stand and recounted with heartrending emotion the day he found his wife dead and claimed his own life ended.

Law student Devina Ramsami went to the trial to learn about legal procedures. But as Mr McAreavey gave evidence she sat in the public gallery with tears in her eyes.

“Michaela was always adamant that she would love to see Mauritius,” John had told the jury.

“Michaela was the one to suggest Legends Hotel. She heard many good reviews and it seemed to be very popular with Irish honeymooners.”

Miss Ramsami says the widower’s day-long testimony brought home the tragedy.

“I told my friends how he felt, that he was sitting crying,” she says.

“He wants to bring justice to his wife and that’s good. With that one little minute he has been able to touch our hearts.

“No happiness will be able to erase his grief.”

Miss Ramsami believes above all else, people in Mauritius are pro-victim.

“They support the victim,” she says.

The family’s sense of isolation must not have been helped by some of the scenes inside court.

In the first weeks especially, the solemnity that some might expect at a trial touching on the death of a newly wed was not always evident.

There were outbursts from the packed benches of the public gallery, usually in response to colourful and at times theatrical utterances from lawyers at the bar.

Making a judgment on such exchanges is neither advisable or appropriate — there are too many cultural variables between Ireland and Mauritius.

But it is fair to say that the McAreavey and Harte families did not find it comfortable.

Michaela’s sister-in-law Claire McAreavey turned round to admonish offenders on at least two occasions.

“Have some respect,” she urged in response to one disturbance behind her.

The trial coincided with a holiday break for local students — the reason so many crammed into court every day.

It was an understandable reaction to such a high-profile case.

Perhaps the impact on proceedings would not have been so evident if police had sought to limit the numbers by setting a capacity, instead of seemingly letting everyone who turned up squeeze inside.

Devpal explains why so many queued to get a space.

“All the students are on leave at the university and students have an interest in the case, as well as the public,” he says.

“It (the trial) is not a regular feature so it would attract the mind of the society at large.”

Mr Valayden, when criticising the police’s handling of the murder investigation, made clear that this was a case whose reverberations were being heard well beyond the shores of the island.

“They are dicing with the reputation of this country,” he claimed.

THE prosec-ution too highlighted how the crime jarred with the island’s international image.

“The story underlying the case for the state is about a fairytale wedding in Ireland and a honeymoon in Mauritius,” said principal counsel Mehdi Manrakhan.

“Our country, which is reputed to be a paradise destination for honeymooners.”

Emilie Davy also works in the hotel industry and has seen the attitude of some visitors change since the newly-wed’s death.

“The murder of Michaela Harte has surely had an impact on Mauritius,” she says.

“For those who are looking for a destination for their holidays they are afraid that something might happen to them; as for those who are here, they have doubled their protection, be it their materials or their person.

“They seem to be very careful as to what they say, as well as their surroundings. For years there have been many who have lost this and that in their hotel room, but a murder — this is something to be afraid of.

“Many foreign visitors are asking about the trial wondering how, why, and how are things going on.”

She says the murder has left a “very big black dot on the face of Mauritius.

“On hearing that on that day each and every person I met told me that it’s a shame for we Mauritians and the paradise of the Indian ocean, as some use to call it.

“This name was given to Mauritius because of its warm welcome which can be found here by people who were on holidays.

“So many people work to keep this identity while others are killing for some money or jewellery? Lots of us were very upset, ashamed and disappointed to face this murder.”

Mauritius is dependent on its annual €1.2bn boon from tourism but it is by no means the economy’s only driver.

The traditional textiles and sugar cane industries are still strong, though competition from the Brazilian sugar market is forcing some farmers to diversify into rice and vegetables.

But it is in the modern industries where Mauritius sees its future.

The government is pro-actively trying to turn the country into a “cyber island”.

Promoting it as a destination for international companies to base call centres, customer service and human resource centres and recruitment services has paid dividends.

Low business tax rates are an incentive and so-called “cyber towers” have sprung up across the island’s central plateau.

Negligible capital gains tax rates and tough due diligence laws have also seen the island flourish as a relatively safe hub through which investors can enter the Indian and Chinese security markets.

Some have christened it the emerging “Singapore of Africa”.

The Irish Government has certainly seen the potential and, by coincidence, midway through the trial an official event marked the formal accreditation of an Irish diplomatic presence in Mauritius.

The Irish Ambassador to South Africa Brendan McMahon is now also the ambassador for the island.

“It’s something we have been considering for a while in terms of creating business opportunities,” explains the deputy head of mission in South Africa Pat McCrane.

So tourism then is not the be all and end all for Mauritius. And Irish tourism certainly isn’t. It accounts for a small fraction of the wider market.

Far more French and Germans holiday on the island every year.

Tourism chiefs are trying to make inroads into the Russian, Scandinavian, Chinese and Indian markets too.

The impact of Mrs McAreavey’s death in countries which don’t speak English as a first language and know little or nothing of Gaelic games, has arguably been minimal.

For the first time Mauritius is forecast to attract more than one million visitors this year — up 3.1% on 2011.

In the nine months following the Co Tyrone teacher’s death the number of European visitors rose by 1.5% in comparison with the same period in 2010.

Mr Sanassee characterises the drive to find new markets.

“During the time it (the murder) happened we were already going wide on our market,” he explains.

“Some hotels are known to have many repeaters — people who travel four to five times. I have known these people. I am only six years in the industry but I have known some people who have travelled three to four times to the same hotel, some to Mauritius 10 times in five years. So we told ourselves why not only these guests, but others also?”

He adds: “We are developing other markets — the Russian market, the Scandinavian market.

“Slowly but surely now we are having a small rise also in our Chinese market, which is a high coming economy in the world.

“Indians are also coming. Many Indian and Russian honeymooners.”

He insists those within the tourist industry are now very mindful of the need to portray the “real” Mauritius, not the one associated only with a very uncommon murder of a tourist.

“We’ll not reflect that image of what has happened in the hotel but we will on the other hand show what we are capable of, what really we do in our hospitality,” he says.

“We told ourselves, most of us are in the young generation working in the hospitality industry, we said we will show actually why we are here — we are doing a passion, we are showing the guests that we are here for them, we care for them, we are not here only to get business,” Mr Sanassee adds.

He highlights that so many businesses are also reliant on the tourist trade — nightclubs, restaurants, bars and the like.

While acknowledging the other sectors supporting the economy, Miss Davy insists the importance of tourism should not be understated.

“As most of us here we know that the tourism industry plays an important role in the income of the island, not to say that it’s the heart of it,” she says.

“The tourism industry provides a big range of employment for lots of people either educated or highly educated to the extent that we have a specialised school to give the best service.

“Without the tourism industry there would be so much unemployed.”

The jobless rate in Mauritius sits around 8%. Miss Ramsami believes the murder tarnished the image of the island but doesn’t think the wider knock-on effect on tourism has been great.

“Most of the tourists are from continental Europe, so I don’t think there has been a big impact,” she says.

“France, Germany and India also, that’s where most come from.

“The crisis did not much affect us — the number of tourists coming to Mauritius has increased this year.”

While noting the impact of negative headlines, the under graduate believes holidaymakers don’t base their trips on news print.

“Tourists coming look on websites to see customer reviews, if people are still having good experiences, good hospitality, others will come,” she insists.

“In the hotel where it happened I think there has been an impact, but not others.

“Mauritius has the image of paradise and good hospitality and people still have faith in that.”

Mr Sanassee stresses that all those working in Mauritian tourism care about the Irish market and are intent on recovering it.

“We are already working on it,” he said.

“All the people, the heads of hospitality industry are already working on it, so that we can get back our Irish market.”

But Miss Davy is not convinced the island’s reputation will ever fully recover.

“Definitely the way foreigners see us has changed,” she claims. “That’s very sad to say but it’s a fact. Lots are trying to glue the broken pieces but it will be difficult, what is done is done, nothing will change that.”

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