HOLLYWOOD became an unlikely champion of tourism in Madagascar when an animated film took the country’s name as its title and deposited a group of animals from a zoo in New York on the shores of the “Red Island”.
But when political violence broke out in Madagascar’s capital of Antananarivo in late January, in which more than 100 people died, the image of exotic adventure portrayed in the film was largely forgotten.
As the international condemnation of Andry Rajoelina’s military-backed rise to power grows, tour operators in Madagascar are increasingly fearful for the country’s reputation as a safe holiday destination.
Political turmoil threatens to leave the tourism industry, one of the country’s biggest foreign currency earners, in tatters.
Hotel occupancy in the capital stands at less then 10% and in the provinces many hotels have been forced to close, laying off staff without pay.
“The impact of the crisis has been immediate,” Vola Raveloson, director of Madagascar’s National Tourism Office (ONTM), told the BBC.
“As soon as international tour operators saw the images of the violence they cancelled all trips to Madagascar.”
Tucked away down one of Antananarivo’s narrow cobbled streets, the ONTM is easy to miss.
Cars rattle down the street outside, shaking the windows of the cramped offices.
At first glance the exotic scenery and outlandish wildlife splashed across bright advertising posters seem as fictitious as the animated characters in Madagascar the movie. But recent years have seen tourism in Madagascar flourish.
In 2008, the industry brought in nearly US$400m, directly employing 25 000 people, and indirectly employing as many as 100 000, according to the ONTM.
Last year 378 000 foreign visitors arrived, an increase of 25 000 on 2007.
The world’s fourth largest island and one of only four global biodiversity hotspots, Madagascar is home to animals as bizarre as the hog-nosed snake and hairy-eared dwarf lemur.
Most of what the Indian Ocean island has to offer visitors exists nowhere else in the world.
At the moment though, this means little to Madagascar’s hotel owners, who have been particularly hard hit by the political crisis.
“This is a catastrophe for hoteliers,” said Eric Koller, head of Madagascar’s hotel and restaurant federation.
“Eighty per cent of hotels are closing and the provinces have been especially hard hit.
“Most hotels have reduced staff by 50%, and some have laid off all staff without pay.”
But it is not just hotels and restaurants that are being affected.
“The tourism industry train is enormous,” said Koller. “It includes artisans who sell souvenirs to tourists, car hire companies, and even farmers and fishermen who sell food to the hotels.”
Even conservation projects in the country are under threat. Volunteers from abroad form the backbone of many environmental projects in the country, but some countries are now advising travellers to avoid Madagascar.
“Travel advice recommending against travel to Madagascar is having a profound impact,” said Edward Tucker-Brown, manager of a luxury camping company.
“Salaries are falling, unemployment is rising and environmental monitoring and protection are being severely hampered.”
In rural areas, where some communities rely on money from tourism to supplement falling incomes from vanilla farming, many will be hit hard by falling visitor numbers.
A major problem would be any decision by foreign travel agencies not to include Madagascar as a destination in travel brochures for 2010.
“My company is struggling to survive as a result of the crisis,” said one operator. “And it will take more than a film to help us.”– BBCOnline.