Foreign Affairs, Tourism and STB budgets approved |16 March 2021
During yesterdays’ sitting, the National Assembly deliberated and approved the proposed budgets for the Department of Foreign Affairs, Department of Tourism and Seychelles Tourism Board (STB), falling under the portfolio of Minister for Foreign Affairs and Tourism, Ambassador Sylvestre Radegonde.
The Foreign Affairs department, represented by principal secretary Marina Confait, proposed an appropriation amounting to R95,253,000, a significant reduction of R13.46 million as compared to the 2020 appropriation.
The department, whose mandate is to implement foreign policy, advance the country’s interests in bilateral and multilateral forums, and mobilise international assistance and aid, while also being responsible for international relations, proposes three programmes, the first of which is governance, management and administration at a cost of R21.9 million. Programme 2 forms the bulk of the budget, at R70.2 million for international relations, covering the services and expenses pertaining to bilateral relations, protocol and overseas missions, while Programme 3, significantly lower at R3.2 million has been allocated for international development cooperation.
Minister Radegonde attributed the decrease primarily to the closure of three embassies in Geneva, Cuba and Sri Lanka, as well as a fourth in Mauritius which had been accounted for in the 2020 budget and was due to open its doors, necessitated by the Covid-19 pandemic and economic crisis. As a result of the closures, the country will save R13.2 million in foreign exchange.
All assets of the closed embassies have been disposed of, some of which have been written off, while others have been sold and others shipped to Seychelles. The ambassadors remain accredited to the respective countries, except that they are now based in Seychelles.
“People think if you don’t have an embassy, the country will not progress and the sun will not rise. It is not the case, we are a small country. If you ask me, I think nine embassies, especially considering their location, we need to seriously review. What Covid-19 has taught us is that we can function effectively without embassies. It is not indispensable,” Minister Radegonde said.
Therefore, the department is responsible for nine missions or embassies across the world, at a cost of R54 million to be financed by the 2021 budget under the Programme 2 heading; - R8.5 million for London, R6.5 million for New York, R4.9 million for Paris, R5.4 million South Africa, R5.3 million India, R6.9 million Brussels, R7.1 million China, R3.1 million United Arab Emirates (UAE) and R5.8 million Ethiopia.
Across the missions, there are around 11 Seychellois staff and 38 non-Seychelles employees in the form of support staff, including chauffeurs, cleaners and drivers.
On her part, Dr Confait highlighted ongoing work within the department to merge embassies with the residences of ambassadors, in a bid to further cut costs.
She also revealed separate rent fees apply for the embassy and for accommodation in some instances, although this is not the case in Paris where the building housing the embassy is owned by the Seychelles government, South Africa where the government has also purchased the ambassador’s residence, and that of UAE, where some of the expenses are financed through a grant.
The respective embassies when wounded up had funds in their accounts, with the Geneva embassy which closed on January 29, holding €41,000 in its accounts, and having spent R2.3 million of its R3.2 million allocation.
The mission in Sri Lanka, for which the national fiscal budget appropriated R4.2 million, ended up closing with R3.4 million unspent, and held $65,000 in accounts. According to Dr Confait, the former ambassador to Cuba spent R1.3 million of the allocated R3.9 million, and the embassy held $35,000 USD, as well as €105,000, inclusive of the proceeds from the sale of assets in some cases. A portion of the €105,000 held by the embassy in Cuba was utilised as payment on behalf of government.
Members were particularly concerned with expenses related to overseas missions and the honorary consulates spread all over the world. There are presently 80 HC in 59 countries, significantly leaner than when Minister Radegonde assumed office a few months ago, when the figure exceeded 100. There may be future recruitments for ambassadors and HCs under the 2021 budget, Minister Radegonde added.
Since assuming office, Minister Radegonde has initiated restructuring within the department with the aim of enhancing performance and effectiveness to deliver on its mandate. As such, a new division created for regional relations within the department, as well as a unit responsible for diaspora relations, to finally tap into and appreciate the value that the community can have to Seychelles.
Furthermore, the department has started conducting a detailed assessment as to what international organisations to which the country subscribes at a hefty cost to the country, are actually beneficial, so as to reduce subscription fees and related expenses, paid in foreign exchange. As at the end of 2020, Seychelles held membership of 181 organisations at a cost of R55 million annually, clarified Dr Confait.
She also highlighted however an annual appropriation between R30 to 35 million, meaning some membership fees were not being honoured, resulting in arrears.
An important component of the 2020 appropriation seeks to address challenges with training and development of young professionals and diplomats within the department.
Minister Radegonde during yesterday’s sitting asserted the need to provide training and opportunities for the youths, through locally-held training sessions, considering that overseas studies are for the present moment ruled out.
The minister has also implemented a mentorship programme within the ministry for the development of the young diplomats.
The department employs 93 staff, 82 of which are based at Maison Queau de Quinssy, comprising 40 diplomats and around 40 support staff.
Minister Radegonde remained in the assembly to present the appropriations for the Department of Tourism represented by PS for Tourism Anne Lafortune, director of Human Resource and Administration Marlene Mondon and acting director of Seychelles Tourism Academy (STA) Brigitte Joubert.
The assembly approved the R53,000,022 appropriation, representing a R4.6 million increment as compared to 2020, moving to also approve the total budget for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Tourism, at a sum of R148,275,000.
As announced by President Wavel Ramkalawan, the Seychelles Tourism Board (STB) and the department of tourism are to merge, pending some amendments to the law, although STB has a separate budget allocation.
Minister Radegonde in introducing the budget highlighted the necessity to harmonise the roles and functions between the entities, to bring about synergy between the STB’s primary function to market Seychelles internationally, and the department’s primary function in devising and implementing policies, product development and diversification.
In noting the challenges of the portfolio, he noted infrastructure and services not necessarily up to standard, problems with training and providing the industry with a competent and qualified pool of labour.
Among the points on which members deliberated was public access to beaches, the development of cultural tourism for the benefit of the local population, who should be made to feel a part of the industry, the minister said, calling for cultural development at district level in the mid to long-term, to encourage visitor spending.
In response to queries about hotel management students at STA, PS Lafortune revealed there are around 100 graduates of Shannon College Ireland, 42 of whom are employed in hotels in Seychelles. Of the 42, twenty (20) are at assistant manager level or above while the others are working at slightly lower levels. Six students are yet to return from their studies.
Honourable Kelly Samynadin questioned the strategy to address the challenge of illegal tourism activities, to which Minister Radegonde noted that it can once and for all be resolved through reinforcement of monitoring, most specifically the Travisory digital platform, on which visitors apply and provide information about where they will be accommodated upon their visit. The system is in use presently as a safeguard against the Covid-19 pandemic, but will also serve to facilitate monitoring.
“Having an idea where everyone is in agreement, we are not there yet nor are we at a point where we all disagree. What we want to achieve through the merger is to streamline the authorities to focus on the mandate, hopefully to eventually spend less than we are, have a structure that does not duplicate across many domains,” Minister Radegonde said, explaining the future of the STB.
Chief executive officer of Seychelles Tourism Board (STB) Sherin Francis, deputy CEO Jennifer Sinon and Financial Controller Guy Hoareau, during the afternoon sought the assembly’s approval for the R142,059,000 budget, an increment of R1.2 million compared to 2020 despite the fact that the board is to be merged with the tourism department.
With the Covid-19 pandemic, STB has been forced to move towards reviewing its activities and to rebrand, incorporate e-marketing and modern technologies to deliver on mandate. Last year, the entity embarked on an exercise to reduce operational costs, closing offices in Italy, Great Britain and South Africa. Employees who were employed with the overseas offices still hold positions and will be discharging such functions from the STB headquarters.
CEO Francis clarified that there are two main budgets under international marketing comprising marketing costs and other service agreements.
“We want to give much more support to our partners, especially partner airlines. So what we have done is to reduce costs through the closure of international offices, keep a bit more with the Head Office, to better support airlines. The funds will still be spent on a specific market, but we know that through a partner, we will get double as the partner will match what we offer, in terms of support or financially,” CEO Francis noted.
CEO Francis went on to note a more aggressive marketing strategy, moving from online and social media platforms, to a strategy focused on virtual technologies, especially now that resources are extremely limited. Virtual technologies offer the advantage of eliminating travel costs and logistics.
In addition to digital marketing which will under the 2021 budget be amplified, traditional channels are still as relevant to certain target markets, stated Mrs Francis. She also highlighted the need for better data collection and market intelligence about the tourism industry, towards a more targeted marketing approach and strategy.
Other service agreements, applying to staff overseas or representations, at a sum of R20.7 million, caters for 15 contracts as compared to 21 contracts last year.
One of the digital campaigns being run by STB presently is the ‘Experience Seychelles campaign’.