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ANTANANARIVO (Reuters) - The Indian Ocean's luxury island destinations eye a tourism rebound in 2010 after receipts fell sharply last year despite better than expected arrival numbers.
The azure waters and palm-fringed beaches of Mauritius and the Seychelles may be among the world's top holiday spots, but the global downturn still forced the rivals to slash prices to keep market share.
"The visibility that we have for the first three or four months of 2010 is quite positive and encouraging. It seems people have started to travel more," Patrice Legris, head of the Mauritius Association of Hoteliers and Restaurateurs (AHRIM), told Reuters.
Mauritius posted record visitor numbers in December, boosting 2009's overall tourist arrivals which reached 871,356, down 6.5 percent on the previous year.
But Legris said he expected tourism receipts to be down by 13 to 15 percent on 2008 because of a strong local unit and aggressive discounting.
AHRIM's data showed tourism accounted for 7.4 percent of GDP in 2009, against 9.4 percent and 8.7 percent in 2007 and 2008 respectively.
Revenue falls are set to be more severe in the Seychelles where 2009 receipts are expected to sink by up to 20 percent from more than $320 million a year earlier -- key for a nation whose entire gross domestic product is below a billion dollars.
Famed for the pristine environment of its coral atolls and forested granitic islands, a rebound in Seychelles' tourism is seen underpinning economic growth of 4 percent this year after an estimated contraction of 7.5 percent in 2009.
"For 2010 we are quite bullish, we're going for plus 5 percent (on 2009) or 165,000 arrivals," Maurice Loustau-Lalanne, head of the Seychelles Tourism Board, said in a phone interview.
The Dubai-based Emirates airline will increase its flights to Seychelles to six times a week from four, he said, while another Gulf airline, Etihad, will launch a new service four times a week in August.
"Airplane seats are now chasing demand," observed Loustau-Lalanne.
He said Russia and the Arab Emirates were among the archipelago's fastest growing markets.
But it is Madagascar, renowned for its leaping lemurs and exotic chameleons and plant-life but battered by a year-long political crisis, that faces the sternest challenge.
Joel Randriamandranto, who heads the National Tourism Office, said tourism revenue in 2009 slumped to $116 million compared to $302 million the year before.
A political crisis which started last March is still occupying the time of international mediators who are keen on a resolution.
Perhaps most damaging long term to its emerging reputation as a top eco-tourism destination will be the pillaging of precious hardwood and poaching of endangered animals that has exploded in the current security vacuum.
"For Madagascar's image, it's really awful," said Randriamandranto. "They've got to stop that."
Additional reporting by Jean Paul Arouff in Port Louis; editing by Ron Askew