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.
But first the leaders of the world’s fourth largest island have fix tourism’s two biggest problems - a poorly run state airline and a toxic political system that breeds instability.
Efforts have not gone well on either front.
President Hery Rajaonarimampianina, whose peaceful election in late 2013 was seen as a new start for politics, was impeached in May. Even though he overturned the vote in the constitutional court, his government nearly fell in a subsequent censure vote.
Fixing the airline has also proved tough, with a month-long strike by Air Madagascar staff bringing the industry to its knees and adding to long-standing grievances against a loss-making and habitually late airline.
“It’s easy to sell Madagascar abroad as a tourist destination but our main obstacle is air transportation,” Tourism Minister Ulrich Andriantiana told Reuters.
Tour operators gripe about Air Madagascar’s domestic monopoly, saying visitors blanch at pricey international fares and the added cost of expensive internal flights necessary to avoid the abysmal roads.
A short internal flight that might cost as little as $50 in Kenya is as much as $300 in Madagascar.
“Everyone says ‘Madagascar is beautiful’, but Madagascar is not the only one that is beautiful. You can go to Cuba, Sri Lanka, Puerto Rico and they are all cheap,” said hotelier Hely Rakotomanantsoa. “The flight costs are a really big issue.”
Andriantiana, the tourism minister, said the strikes had prompted the government to “liberalize” the skies by introducing more competition, including on domestic flights.
“It’s not good to have a monopoly,” he said. “If Air Madagascar doesn’t work well, every sector will fall down.”
The government had held talks with Kenya Airways and Air France to introduce new international routes to open up markets in Africa, Asia and North America, he added.
Until now, Madagascar has marketed itself to adventure travelers as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to visit a “modern-day Noah’s Ark” - a reference to estimates that 80 percent of its plant-life cannot be found anywhere on the planet.
“It’s amazing how you can travel for six hours and go from desert to rainforest,” said 19-year-old Briton Ollie Tiliouine, who volunteered for a marine conservation charity before criss-crossing the island on rickety minibuses.
Competing for the high-end tourists who flock to Seychelles and Mauritius, two neighboring Indian Ocean islands famed for azure waters and white sandy beaches, will prove tricky.
“Outside the capital, it’s hard to find good services and hotels, especially for the upper market,” said another tour operator who did not wish to reveal her name as she was critical of tourism policy.
That matters little to the likes of Pauline Geoffroy, a 22-year-old French tourist who traveled 3,000 km (2,000 miles) in cramped public buses across humid lowlands and undulating highlands dotted with shimmering rice fields.
“The sea, mountains and wildlife here are just so unique,” she said. “It’s like a paradise. I would definitely come back.”
Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Alison Williams