Maxim Behar, the Honorary Consul General of Seychelles in Bulgaria, made a guest appearance in the television show “In Development” on Bloomberg TV Bulgaria with host Veronika Denizova. Mr. Behar analysed and clarified more about the advantages of Seychelles as a tourist destination in 2021 and noted the forecasts that by the end of April, Seychelles will be a COVID-19 free destination. Maxim Behar observed the government’s major breakthrough in global tourism and the opening of the country’s borders for tourists around the globe on March 25.
Host: March 25 marks the upcoming opening of the Republic of Seychelles borders to tourists from all countries, regardless of their vaccination status. Visitors will only need to present a negative PCR test, based on a sample collected no more than 72 hours before departure. Furthermore, there are no quarantine requirements or additional restrictions on arrival. Meanwhile, Turkish Airlines announced that the company is resuming its flights from Istanbul to Mahé Island, where the Seychelles capital city Victoria is located.
The discussion on the reopening of Seychelles and the resumption of tourism on the island will continue with our guest Maxim Behar, Honorary Consul General of Republic of Seychelles in Bulgaria, Founder and CEO of the communication agency M3 Communications Group, Inc.
On behalf of our entire team, we would like to thank you for coming on to the show!
Maxim Behar: Hello! It is my pleasure to join you today on Bloomberg TV!
Host: And on such a great occasion – the opening of the Seychelles borders for tourists. Why did the authorities decided to reopen the borders now?
Maxim Behar: A new Government stepped into office in the Seychelles earlier this year, which coincided with the pandemic wave and led to a different opinion on how to get out of the circumstances. 80 percent of Seychelles’ economy depends on tourism and consequently the reopening of the borders was an absolute priority for the Government.
There was an alternative in which the authorities offered vaccinated tourists with two vaccine doses to arrive on the island without any restrictions and with the complete freedom to visit restaurants and bars. Currently, the Republic of Seychelles became the leader of vaccinated people on every 1,000 citizen and is ahead of Israel and many other countries. The concept was based on the idea that if every citizen and tourist is vaccinated, then possible infection would be eliminated. However, because the process of immunization against the virus in a global aspect is carried out leisurely, the government changed its positions and, as a matter of fact, made a big breakthrough in the world of tourism.
It is logical. Every Seychelles citizen will be vaccinated by the end of April, since there is little population on the island, and vast amounts of vaccines was donated by China, India and the United Arab Emirates. Currently, there are more vaccine doses than population on the territory of Seychelles. When every citizen is vaccinated and every tourist has passed the PCR test and there is no doubt about infection or transmitting the disease, then there will be a peaceful tourist season. Hotels and restaurants will come back to life, since most of them are currently closed.
Host: Since you mentioned that by the end of April every Seychelles citizen will be vaccinated, does the statement signify that vaccination is mandatory on the island?
Maxim Behar: It is definitely not mandatory! However, from what I have observed and received as a reaction from close friends of mine with whom I share videos daily, I see that everyone is ready to be vaccinated. We should not forget that this is their livelihood. Each of them walks along the beach, or to the restaurant, or has a certain kind of income related to tourism. Rationally, these people want to be vaccinated and this is undoubtedly a global and historical trend. There is not a single pandemic in the entire history of the world that has been conquered without a mass vaccination. Therefore, by the end of April, the Seychelles would certainly be a coronavirus-free tourist destination.
I am beyond happy that the breakthrough happened right there, in the Seychelles, as the difference between my favorite 115 islands and any other destination, is that the Republic of Seychelles is the most ecological region in all of Africa. In fact, 53 percent of its territory is reserved and much of it is in the structures of UNESCO and the United Nations. On these 53 percent of the region, it is forbidden to even drive a peg.
You may know there are two main laws that the island follows. On the one hand, there should only be one hotel on a beach area and on the other hand, there should not be a hotel with more than two floors, i.e. only low-rise construction is allowed. This undoubtedly offers impressive tourism conditions. Visitors travel to an ecologically clean country, where every single stalk, fruit, or vegetable has gone through millions of checks before being picked and later offered. I believe that many other countries should follow the example of the Seychelles since that is a reasonable move which will lead to the revival of a whole economy.
Host: However, some restrictive measures will have to be observed upon arrival on the island. What will be mandatory for the tourists?
Maxim Behar: Quite the normal measures that we all follow in Bulgaria and everywhere we travel, such as wearing a mask, integrating strong personal hygiene and high disinfection, things we all should have incorporated long before the pandemic. But tourists need to be careful at all cost, so that in the end they have great guarantee they will not come into contact with infected people. If the Seychelles population is vaccinated with all two doses of the vaccine and tourists are being checked by a PCR test before entering the territory, the risk of someone being infected with the virus will be minimized.
Host: What level of interest is expected from Bulgarian citizens once the borders reopen?
Maxim Behar: An interest by the Bulgarian citizens was observed long before the borders were about to open, which was expressed in between 5 to 10 phone calls from tourists and tour agencies I was receiving daily. Through these times, I have even received calls from tourists in Dubai, UAE, and different travel agencies who argued with me on the phone, because they were not allowed to board the flight to Mahé Island or to Victoria due to unpresented PCR tests. They were constantly calling and saying, “This is unacceptable”. In general, there is a significant increase of interest for the Seychelles from Bulgaria and other countries in the world. When I was first introduced to the country 15-16 years ago, the tourist wave was about 60,000 tourist a year.
In the last normal tourism year, there were 380,000 visitors. Considering that the population of the Seychelles are 85,000 citizens total, the tourists were four times the population of the island.
I was observing statistics from 2019 and the number of tourists arrived in Bulgaria was 8 million, which is equal to the number of the Bulgarian population. This implies, by an arbitrary comparison I will make, for Bulgaria to have 30-35 million tourists every year in order to hold the same proportions as the Seychelles.
Currently, in the Seychelles new hotels are being built as the state is investing largely in tourism and tourist experience. It may not be as affordable as other destinations, but it undoubtedly offers ecological, clean and quiet tourist experience. Once, while I was visiting one of my favorite hotels on the island, I stumbled upon a group of highly aggressive and nervous Bulgarian visitors. I was keeping quiet when suddenly they recognized me as I stood in the lobby and said “How come there are no night clubs opened? The women took outfits and jewelry with them and now we have nowhere to show them!” I told them in a good manner that Seychelles is a destination that offers quiet tourism and calm experience. In fact, it offers quite the opposite from the Caribbean Island, for instance. This is an exceptional country with high interest towards it. Today, especially since we announced the reopening of the borders on March 25 with a presented negative PCR test, I received over 150 phone calls from friends, asking me when to book a flight ticket or to recommend them a place to stay during their vacation.
Host: We are definitely expecting greater interest! Bulgarians, however, surprised us with another destination of their choice in the last few months. Zanzibar turned out to be quite popular.
According to a Travel news report, approximately 3,000 Bulgarian citizens have visited Zanzibar in the past few months. Why do you think Zanzibar became popular among Bulgarians all of a sudden?
Maxim Behar: As I was coming to the studio, someone told me on the phone that the beaches of Zanzibar are full of people dancing and only Bulgarian music can be heard. Needless to say, after a whole year of quarantine and strict measures, it is natural for people to be eager to travel once the measures have eased and be able to rest elsewhere. I believe that even if some unpopular exotic destinations such as Turkmenistan or somewhere in Central Asia were accessible for tourists, there would also be observed a large influx of visitors. The desire to travel and visit new destinations is natural. I have heard that Zanzibar is very thrilling island with interesting people and entertainment to offer. As a benefit, it is one of the two opened for visitors’ locations without any requirements and measures, as it is also in Mexico. I stand behind those Bulgarians who want to travel again and spent their free time in quite positive environment, as long as everything is safe and secure, and there is no chance for them to become infected or become carriers of the disease. The pandemic situation is very uncertain, and nobody can feel constantly protected. Day-to-day we hear about new COVID-19 strains and new numbers of infected people. Once, those over 65 years fall into the most at-risk group, then it is said to be the people between 30-35 years old. Even so, we all need to be very responsible and put our safety above the desire for entertainment.
Host: However, it appears that many people take the chance to travel, because earlier this year Deutsche Welle distributed an article with a warning regarding Zanzibar. The president of Tanzania claimed that the country is virus-free, and the infection was banished by prayers, not vaccination.
On the other hand, Deutsche Welle TV presented the alternative truth – that the virus in Tanzania is spreading rapidly.
Well, Mr. Behar, it seems that Tanzania views these statements as a well-done PR. But is this the right way to advertise a destination?
Maxim Behar: First and foremost, this in not PR. I am a part of this industry for many years now and this is quite a sensitive topic for me. I was very stunned by this commentary, especially when I have read various articles regarding the topic. But this only represents our need to be more cautious before making a decision. Beyond question, every country suffered huge losses because of the coronavirus, and we should not respond to such populistic calls at all. Needless to say, the statement is inaccurate. Allow me to ask – how come the virus is continuing to spread all over the world, except on an island, which suddenly becomes Heaven on Earth?
Everyone has the right to make an assessment for themselves, as well as to decide where to travel or what measures to implement. But we should be more careful about the locations, where no data or statistics about the virus are available, since we were introduced to a deadly infection in the last year.
Maybe Tanzania will gain uncertain number of profits from the tourist wave and maybe their short-term resemblance to the outside world will be ideal, but what will happen in the next 1-2 years if the country continues not to impose any measures? In the current situation, every single country must have an accurate and transparent policy on the subject.
Host: What PR strategy does a country need to implement in order to position itself well in the recovery of global tourism? Could you, possibly, tell us about Bulgaria in particular? What should we do here?
Maxim Behar: Bulgaria is undoubtedly a sensitive topic for me, since I am here and observe the situation directly. Our state is idle regarding to the positioning of Bulgaria among tour operators. Everything we remember from our past, before March 13, 2013, does not work today. The signing of contracts has been replaced by new and modern approaches and nowadays social media should be use assertively. We need a whole new vision, a whole new bundle of different ideas to represent Bulgaria as a magnificent country. I believe that the cheap tourism and low level of tourist experience we present in the past 15-20 years is not in our favor, especially now, when people can travel on a small budget. Tourists can choose between Bulgaria and more than a hundred other destinations, which are absolute competitors.
It would be great to see our Minister of Tourism and the National Board of Tourism, which moreover have an exceptionally intelligent and well-trained team, along with a group of PR experts and international branding specialists, to build a strategy. For a split second, they can constitute a report, representing the advantages of Bulgaria. Of course, PCR tests will continue to be mandatory, but when a tourist comes here, he will be introduced to a great hospitality, better prices, clean beaches and enjoyable restaurants. But this must be said out loud, so all Bulgarians can hear it, as we also rely on local tourism. Our citizens are the people that are most likely to help the tourist business to survive and be introduced abroad.
This is indeed the strategy of the Seychelles. All these years, the island has been on CNN, despite its’ small population of 70-80 thousand citizens. Not a single year goes by that the famous CNN anchor Richard Quest does not visit the Seychelles for a few weeks, where he is greeted by the President, the Minister of Tourism and my dearest friend, Sherin Francis. All is broadcasted on CNN in a way that mentions the Seychelles. I hope to see the same happening in Bulgaria, because we still rely on our tourism business.
Currently, we own empty hotels and restaurants, and their owners are constantly complaining, while others reorganize their business’s structures, sell their hotels and start in a new business field. And this is quite the normal market situation, in which, however, the state needs to support the tourism via logical assistance and branding.
Host: One would hope that we will be introduced to such ideas and their implementation soon, so that Bulgaria does not stand behind the recovery. This would undoubtedly be key to the survival of the tourism business.
Maxim Behar: We are indeed falling behind other countries. We should not forget there are upcoming elections, which will quake the country and probably lead to some sort of cataclysm on a political level. However, the Ministry must continue to function together with the Board of Tourism, so they can come up with a concept that should be implemented.
Host: We would like to thank you for the conversation!
Maxim Behar: Thank you for having me!