Madagascar mess-ups keep tourist 'paradise' marooned

Sun Aug 2, 2015 3:51pm EDT
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By Lovasoa Rabary and Drazen Jorgic

ANTANANARIVO (Reuters) - Perched on the muddy bank of a river meandering through rolling green hills, the Lemurs' Park near Madagascar's capital is rated one of the city's top attractions, but you would not know it from the number of visitors.

On a Saturday in what is meant to be high season, only a handful of tourists are in the park to catch a glimpse of the furry creatures endemic to the tropical forests of this vast Indian Ocean island.

Tour operators blame the latest drop in visitor numbers on mass cancellations that followed a month-long Air Madagascar strike that grounded all internal flights.

But to Rakotomamonjy Andrianantoanina, a veteran Lemurs' Park guide, the long-term trend since a 2009 coup that scared off visitors and ravaged the economy has been just as worrying.

"In 2008, the tourism in Madagascar was very high. But there has been political trouble since 2009 so the tourists are fewer and fewer," Andrianantoanina told Reuters as ring-tailed lemurs scampered through nearby eucalyptus trees.

With the mining industry hit by low global commodity prices, the government has promoted tourism as a spur of growth and job creation in one of the world's poorest nations.

Touting its rainforests, reefs and weird and wonderful plants and animals, officials are aiming for 1 million tourists by 2020, five times higher than last year and more than double the 2008 peak, when 380,000 people visited the former French colony.

There are even lofty plans to compete for well-heeled visitors who flock to Mauritius and Seychelles, two "honeymoon" destinations where European elites have vacationed for decades.   Continued...

Lemurs are feed by a caretaker at Antananarivo's Tsimbazaza Zoo Madagascar, in this December 5, 2006 file photo. REUTERS/Radu Sigheti/Files