Seychelles has been voted number one island destination in Africa and Middle East and is attracting ever-increasing numbers of visitors in search of an unspoiled heavenly hideaway
Few places offer such an earthly vision of paradise as the Seychelles archipelago, whose 115 islands – some granite based, others of pure luminous coral – nestle just south of the equator in the heart of the West Indian Ocean. Inhabited by some 93,000 souls, they’re a geographical and political extension of the great African continent, which lies 1,000 miles to the west.
Considering the country’s size and population, it may appear surprising that no fewer than three languages – French, English and Seychellois Creole – are all spoken here with fluency. The French ruled from 1756 to 1812 and left the legacy of their language as well as many of the village names that remain today. English comes from the subsequent British rule, which ended when the islands were granted their independence in 1976. Seychellois Creole is the most widely spoken language on the island and it was derived from the French spoken by early settlers combined with other ethnic influences found across the islands.
Seychelles’ natural attractions include lush tropical vegetation, dazzling white beaches, deep blue seas and a perpetual summer climate. But this fragile paradise is anxious to preserve its natural charms and not “succumb to the cardinal sin of short-term profit” in its attempts to draw international holidaymakers, according to Tourism and Culture Minister Alain St. Ange. The islands’ exclusive oceanic territory of 1.3 million km2 is the second largest in Africa, and the minister’s priority is to maximize use of this great expanse in an eco-friendly, sustainable manner.
Since the crisis-ridden days of 2008 when worldwide finances and economies were in disarray, Mr. St Ange has been a guiding hand in the islands’ welfare. In recognition of his dedicated services he was appointed to his current post in 2012. He subsequently wasted no time in overseeing projects like the Vanilla Island Organization, an important promotional meeting held the following year at London’s World Travel Market between two of the world’s prominent island groups in the Caribbean and Indian Ocean, which covered subjects as diverse as marketing, air connections and product development.
As well as scenic delights the islands have two colorful cultural draws. The first of these to attract attention is the long-standing Creole festival of arts and music held every September. Although still popular, the event has been outstripped in the past five years by the even more vibrant international springtime Carnival, which has attracted carnivalistas (carnival advisors and organizers) from Brazil, the Caribbean, Europe and Asia as it’s grown steadily in size and popularity.
The carnival has been one of the key factors contributing to the rise in visitors by 19% from 2014’s 234,029 visitors to 2015’s 276,233. The largest percentage of holidaymakers, around 38,000 in number, come from France, although the islands are now aiming at a wider international range of visitors that would include China (weekly flights now operate to Beijing), Russia and the Americas, as well as closer regions such as the African mainland.
For Mr. St. Ange the encompassing Indian Ocean is of prime importance for the island’s future. “If we don’t protect the seas around the Seychelles we will not have a tourist industry,” he says. Any development, in his mind, must be sustainable and focused on the main marine resources from which the islands can benefit. Solid investment is needed and far-sighted strategies need to be planned to achieve this aim.
A leading factor in all Seychellois developments has been the archipelago’s emergence as the world’s first “blue economy” – a new term coined in reference to the pristine, pellucid, perennially warm waters that embrace the islands, offering unparalleled swimming, scuba diving and other marine activities such as sailing, diving and yachting, which Mr. St. Auge refers to as the “niche” market.
There is also an ever present abundance of fresh fish, which is one of the islands’ great culinary draws and a constant delight to gastronomy-conscious visitors, who can enjoy dining out on exotic dishes of barracuda, parrot fish, squid and grouper, cooked in a variety of inventive styles and flavored with ginger, garlic, chilies or coconut milk.
The Seychellois are anxious to make the best possible use of their huge watery universe, and are well aware of the need to set their sights on the potential and actual marine resources from which it can benefit. The area offers major possibilities for diversification and growth, and a range of opportunities covering not only tourism but also everything from energy and sea minerals to inter-island transportation. Of the latter, Mr. St. Ange points out: “We can’t move if we don’t have this natural asset to pave the way for us to develop our cruise ship business, our sailing business, our island hopping business and our boat charter business.”
On the vitally important factor of sustainability in tourism he adds: “We need to ensure that we can live from it, but we also need to ensure that we protect it, because we need it as part of the natural USPs (unique selling points) of these islands.”
As to the increasing numbers of visitors the island is now experiencing, small by some standards but large considering the total population, Mr. St. Auge is quick to point out the steps they have taken to move carefully, and avoid killing the goose that laid the golden egg. He and his government colleagues have no wish to squander its obvious advantages, which include magnificent scenery and beaches and pollution-free sea and air. “We are different to a lot of countries,” says the Tourism Minister, drawing attention to the fact that during the past couple of years the islands have set out a tourism master plan that is constantly looking five years into the future to provide an on-going, updated, overall picture of the industry.
One clear need is to avoid overbuilding. Plans to go ahead with any new large hotels are currently on hold until the ministry has determined exactly how many tourists can be safely and reasonably accommodated in any given area without harming or spoiling its natural assets. Feasibility study plans take into account workforce availability and essential infrastructural requirements, including electricity and water supplies and road construction. The industry also has to ascertain how many staff of the right caliber – fully trained in a government-run tourist academy – they can provide.
Another important factor is connectivity. In order for the industry to grow, the islands need to augment the number of regular air service links, which inevitably causes an increase in pollution as more carbon is released into the air. “We need to know how to manage and balance the two,” says Mr. St. Ange. “Keep the tourist industry going, but at the same time protect what we have to ensure that it is long-lasting.”
He adds that tourism in Seychelles, by the very nature of the place, is compact, unique, and small-scale, and he acknowledges that it will never be a mass-market industry. Instead it will remain to some degree a “specialist” destination, based on the needs of the individual, where visitors can retain their own personal space instead of feeling part of some mass-market production line.
Mr. St Ange sees the need to branch out beyond the main three islands of Mahe, Praslin and La Digue. “The minute you touch the other islands, you’re touching the blue economy,” he explains, “because the attraction of all of the small islands is geared towards the sea.”
With the private and public sectors in partnership this tourism can slowly grow, he maintains. And with the aid of smaller cruise vessels, all islands from the main ones to the remotest outer coral islets can be easily connected. Their visitors may, in Mr. St. Ange’s enthusiastically fanciful eyes, find themselves transformed into veritable 21st century Robinson Crusoes or Man Fridays. Wild marine life and unspoiled nature abound in these offbeat locations, where visitors can enjoy activities like fishing, whale watching and dolphin watching.
One of the most isolated groups – the Aldabra mini archipelago of dwarf-sized coral atolls, with its wide-ranging resident breeds of exotic turtles – is seen by Mr. St. Ange as the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean; although he takes pains to point out that they have no intention of commercializing it like that particular over-visited island nature reserve.
Certified green tourism
IIn a move to improve recognized standards, Fair Trade Tourism, a South African non-profit organization promoting “responsible” green tourism, signed a Mutual Recognition Agreement in July 2015 with a tourism certification program called the Seychelles Sustainable Tourist Label (SSTL). This initially granted six hotels the right to be marketed under the SSTL: Bejarya Beau Vallon Resort and Casino, Banyan Tree Seychelles Resort, Constance Ephelia Resort, Hanneman’s Holiday Residence, and Kempinski Seychelles Resort, all in Mahe, and Heliconia Grove in Praslin. They have since been joined by another five hotels and resorts, namely the Hilton Lebriz Resort and Spa, Anse Forbans Chalets, Constance Lemuria Resort, Four Seasons Resort and Cote d’Or Footprints. To qualify for this recognition and receive their SSTL certificate, all these hotels had to demonstrate that they’d followed a defined number of sustainable business practices.
Decisive moves like these constitute a great step forward in the islands’ tourism agenda and are clear indications of the government’s efforts to incorporate mainstream sustainability practices into the industry. They initially evolved from a Seychelles’ tourism growth strategy known as Vision 21, which was dedicated to producing the best social and economic benefits for the Seychellois by protecting the natural environment and safeguarding biodiversity.
The human factor is not ignored either. The islands aim at a smooth, harmonious integration of workforce with industry, motivating their employees, helping them to relate to their product and making them feel part of it. “By being involved they defend the industry with us and promote it with us,” says Mr. St Ange, contrasting this favorable situation with that in Caribbean tourist areas where he claims a “them and us” (developers and owners versus workers) has occurred, resulting, at its worst, in discord, conflict, lack of social harmony and even increased crime in some areas.
Mr. St. Ange feels some form of standardization in quality control, a “world label” – covering both accommodation and environment – is essential in all countries where tourism is an important industry, and that this should be approved by an accredited body like the UN. Such a uniform regulation would prevent individual countries from following their own often widely diverging rules and standards in a way that not only confuses everyone, but also may end up with the best of their natural attractions being destroyed.
“The discerning traveler is today looking more and more for something that does not adversely effect nature, that does not kill what these islands have,” he says, envisaging a world in which not just the Seychelles but all countries have an individual “label” that clearly adheres in practice to this new, hypothetical, global standard.
The certificates issued to those 11 Seychelles hotels were a positive step on the road to sustainability in the islands. Another recent overall boost was the nomination of the Seychelles in July this year in New York’s Travel + Leisure magazine’s World’s Best Awards as the number one island destination in Africa and the Middle East.