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Thursday, October 05, 2000, updated at 15:52(GMT+8)

Mauritius--Miracle in Africa

"You gather the idea that Mauritius was made first, and then heaven, and that heaven was copied after Mauritius," the world-known American writer Mark Twain once said.

Heaven on earth is an ideal. But Mauritius, an island country in the Indian Ocean where the sea is turquoise, the mountains green, the sun generous, even the roadside weeds bloom like tropical gardens, has indeed accomplished a miracle: it is the only African country which has managed to provide free medical care to all its population of over 1 million.

Like a pearl in the Indian Ocean, Mauritius can hardly be found in a world map. However, it is a paradise on earth for investors, as the island is increasingly acting as a trading platform for Madagascar and mainland Africa.

Emerging as a middle-income economy, the island is now poised to become the business hub of the Indian Ocean and the gateway to Eastern and Southern Africa. According to the March 1996 survey of the Institutional Investor fro creditworthiness, Mauritius ranks first in the whole of Africa.

Mauritius, on the eve of independence in 1968, was essentially a mono-crop economy based on sugar production which accounted for 99% of export earnings, employed 25 percent of the active workforce and contributed to nearly one third of the gross domestic product (GDP).

In the early 1970s, Mauritius made great efforts to diversify its economy by encouraging the establishment of export-oriented companies within the original concept of its Export Processing Zone scheme (MEPZ). As a result, GDP grew at a rate of 7 percent in the late 1980s and 6 percent during the period 1990-1996. The success of the MEPZ has since been highlighted as a model for other developing countries.

The success of the Mauritian economy is the result of its firm roots in political stability, good governance, clear policy orientation, consistency in the management of the economy and a staunch belief in free enterprise.

"Although it is a multi-ethnic country, we have no ethnic fighting or conflict; all the people live in peace and unity and construct their homeland diligently," a middle-aged hotel guard told Xinhua reporter.

"Mauritius is a heaven to us," he said.

Covering a territory of only over 2,000 square kilometers, Mauritius is quite rich with the per capita gross domestic product reaching 3,700 U.S. dollars, the third highest in Africa after Seychelles and Libya.

The country has achieved an annual average economic growth rate of 7 percent in the past decade. The average life span here has reached 71.09 compared with as low as 30 to 40 of many other African countries.

Lopsided economy, poverty and backwardness have already become history.

Overlooking from the plane, the whole island looks like a green pearl in the blue ocean. It is covered by either trees or sugarcane and other crops, a scene of prosperity, in sharp contrast with many other African countries, where vast cultivable land are left barren and wasted.

After independence in 1968 Mauritius adopted a series of effective measures for restructuring its economy.

Coupled with favorable investment policy, the export process zone now earns the country 1.3 billion dollars a year, replacing the traditional sugar sector as the biggest foreign exchange earner. Textile and textile products are main products in the export processing zone. High quality and rapid delivery are hallmarks of the industry and efforts are made to maintain its competitiveness in the international market.

Mauritius firms have expanded their business to Madagascar and some countries in southern and eastern Africa. The country is expected to become a services hub, providing the benefits of expertise it has acquired in the development of the export processing zone.

The second measure to diversity its economy is to promote tourism. In 1970 only 28,000 foreign tourists visited the island country but now it attracts 600,000 foreign visitors a year, surpassing half of the country's population. 12,000 employees work directly for the tourism sector and many more work indirectly.

The tourism sector earns Mauritius 500 million dollars annually, representing about 500 dollars per capita and has become a driving force of the economy.

The third measure is to develop the island country as a regional financial center by encouraging establishment of offshore entities, offshore investment funds and management firms. Offshore banking allows financial institutions to lend money and take deposits in foreign currencies without taxes and regulations. Now there are 11 offshore banks with assets totaling over 3 billion dollars.

To build the island as a free port is the fourth measure. In mid-1990s Mauritius spent nearly 20 million dollars on constructing a free port near the capital city of Port Louis. The total trade turnover of the free port in 1998 reached 6.5 billion rupee (about 295 million dollars at the then exchange rate).

Mauritius pursues a free enterprise policy and the private sector plays a vital rule in the economy.

In recent years Mauritius is promoting e-commerce, viewing the information technology (IT) as part of the broader endeavor to integrate itself with the global economy. The government's main focus is on modernizing the telecommunications network and making it more affordable to the public and training IT professionals.

"Our plan is to connect every home, every office and every school to the Internet," said Prime Minister Navinchandra Ramgoollam.

To increase the number of IT professionals, a new university of technology was opened earlier this year and the number of IT professionals is expected to increase by five folds by 2005.

Sugar industry, with a history of over 200 years, continues to flourish. about 45 percent of the total territory or 90 percent of the country's cultivated land is planted with sugarcane. Annual sugar production reaches 600,000 tons, or 500 kilograms per capita, all for export, earning the country 350 million dollars every year. Now it remains one of the three pillars of the economy, next to processing and tourism.

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"You gather the idea that Mauritius was made first, and then heaven, and that heaven was copied after Mauritius," the world-known American writer Mark Twain once said.

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