A strong economy is required to lift any nation away from poverty and improve the daily lives of those people who call that country home. Madagascar is the largest of the islands found in the Indian Ocean, but lags behind neighbours such as Seychelles, Mauritius, and others in terms of the development of its tourism industry.

Tourism is a critical piece in many successful economies. Consider the United States, which offers a variety of cultural and business destinations, such as New York City, Los Angeles, and Seattle, as well as beach destinations like Southern California, Florida, and the Gulf Coast. In this respect Madagascar has immense potential as a tourist destination because of its unique flora and fauna. It is the job of Mr. Roland Ratsiraka, the newly assigned Minister of Tourism, to help Madagascar catch up to its neighbours as a tourist destination in the Indian Ocean. In order to achieve this, he’ll have to pull together a nation, push for initiatives to improve infrastructure, work with businesses to promote the island, and build greater awareness regionally and globally.

Roland Ratsiraka

Red Tsingy – stone formation of red laterite formed by erosion of the Irodo River in the region of Diana in north of Madagascar

The Situation in Madagascar

Ratsiraka admits that, like any nation, the news that is often spread out of Madagascar can cast the nation in a negative light. He views this as the first challenge for the nation as it tries to build a better tourism industry. Changing the perception of travelers is essential if the government is to improve upon the number of tourists entering the country on an annual basis.

Madagascar does have considerable potential as a tourist destination in the region. While locales such as Seychelles, Mauritius, and Reunion have stunning beaches and beautiful forests and jungles to attract travellers from around the globe, Madagascar has its own unique natural beauty that differs from that of its neighbours.

For example, southern Madagascar has stretches of desert that are not found anywhere else in popular Indian Ocean destinations, and makes for the perfect attraction for adventure travelers. Without prior knowledge of these destinations though, tourists are unlikely to choose Madagascar over places such as Seychelles and Mauritius.

Roughly 165 million years ago, Madagascar split from continental Africa. This resulted in immense biodiversity and endemic wildlife and forests that are not found anywhere nearby. This isolation from continental Africa has given Madagascar all the natural resources it needs to build a strong and vibrant tourism industry. A task that now falls to Mr. Ratsiraka. The first step in that process? Improving the existing tourism industry.

Roland Ratsiraka

Cathedral in Betafo, Madagascar

Improving the Tourism Industry

Madagascar’s tourism industry has struggled to attract return travelers and new sightseers alike in recent years for a variety of reasons. Political strife in the early 2000’s, combined with security concerns in some areas of the country, led to a drop in the number of visitors. The global recession also played a major role in slowing the growth of the industry.

For Madagascar to overcome this, Mr. Ratsiraka believes that first the nation must improve what it already has in place before trying to build new facets to the travel industry. For example, he notes that there are only three airlines that fly to Madagascar from global destinations. Air France and Air Madagascar fly from Paris, but the flights are not direct and are extremely expensive. He notes that the average Air France ticket costs in excess of €1,000 per person. Corsair is another option, but offers fewer flights and departs only from Paris Orly Airport.

However, he does see the potential for greater growth if more airlines begin offering service to Madagascar. Major international car rears such as Emirates and Etihad already offer service to nearby Seychelles and Mauritius, and there are connection flights available from those destinations to Madagascar. More frequent offerings are being encouraged as part of the Vanilla Islands tourism pact between Madagascar, Reunion, Mauritius, and Seychelles.

In fact, Mr. Ratsiraka notes that Emirates is set to begin offering service to Madagascar later in 2016, and Etihad may expand its offerings to Madagascar out of Seychelles.

Expanding and Modernizing National Infrastructure

One more problem that Madagascar must deal with in its bid to attract more tourists is bringing its current transportation infrastructure up to date with modern standards found in other nations. Madagascar has just one international airport, and flights to other regions of the island not only cost tourists more money, it takes at least an extra hour.

Traveling to far-flung reaches of the island via car is not easy either, for a number of reasons. First and foremost, Madagascar still has reaches of the island with few or no paved roadways. On top of that, there are not the big SUVs and busses readily available on the island to transport large numbers of tourists to and from airports and resorts.

Roland Ratsiraka

Ba by Ring-tailed Lemur (Lemur catta), Anja park, Madagascar

Other Advantages and Challenges

Mr. Ratsiraka is not coy in highlighting the advantages and disadvantages facing Madagascar as it attempts to build a strong tourism industry. Compared to the other nations of the region, Madagascar is not only physically larger, it boasts a much greater population, 22 million people. This adds to the cultural diversity and flair awaiting any visitor coming to the island.

The current visa entry process at the airport is easy, requiring just a simple stamp and easily completed in a matter of minutes, but some aspects of visa policies do negatively impact on tourists. For example, individuals traveling between international destinations and places such as Seychelles and Mauritius do not pay for visa entry, but cruise passengers arriving via boat in Madagascar have to pay €25. It may seem small, but when it is free to enter other nations, it makes them more attractive as a destination compared to Madagascar..

The sheer size of Madagascar enables it to offer a little something for all tourists, from the terraced paddy fields of the central highlands to the tropical rain forest that dominates the eastern coast. There are also swaths of deciduous forest along the western shores of Madagascar, while the far eastern shores boast tropical beaches similar to those found in Seychelles and Mauritius.

Madagascar must find specific identity as a tourist destination, because that is the essence of any successful tourism industry. Mr. Ratsiraka admits that the nation’s lagging infrastructure currently prevents it from focusing on luxury tourism, but that doesn’t mean the country can’t build its base upon adventure tourism and outdoor enthusiasts anxious to experience the vast biodiversity the island has to offer.

Lofty Goals

Mr. Ratsiraka might be new to the job as Minister of Tourism, but he’s not new to government and he knows how to get things done. He first ran for political office in his home region, winning a spot in parliament and fighting (successfully) to get access
to clean water for his hometown. After serving in parliament, he resigned to run for mayor, a post he won three times.

After coming in third in early presidential elections and siding with the eventual winner, he found himself in the role as Minister of Tourism. Before you assume he’s just another politician, Mr. Ratsiraka is an accomplished businessman, having built export businesses dealing in spices and fruits. If anyone can work with local and international businesses to improve upon and promote Madagascar tourism, it’s Mr. Ratsiraka.

He admits that the government has lofty goals for its tourism industry. Currently the annual figures for tourist arrivals stands around 300,000 visitors. The government would like to grow that figure by 10% annually until a level of 600,000 annual tourists is reached. The goals are lofty, but the need is great. An improved tourism industry can, as Mr. Ratsiraka put it, employ more citizens and help lift hundreds of thousands out of poverty.