A paradise discovered
Driving along the leafy, winding roads of the main Seychelles island of Mahe, one could for a moment be mistaken for thinking of England.
Except the sun’s shining and the flora and fauna are somewhat more exotic, but the pleasant thoroughfares still lend a touch of rural UK to the general scene.
Then the stunning coastline of Anse Royale swings into view, the turquoise seas looking even more unreal in their real-life beauty than on the postcards on sale in the souvenir shops of Victoria, the smallest capital city in the world.
To the visitor, it is hard to imagine a more idyllic life for the 80,000 people who call the Seychelles home, a land where laid-back individuals and groups sit lazily in the shade of swaying palms on some of the world’s most photographed beaches swigging the local brew, where fishermen sell yellow fin tuna on the beach, and where children roam safely in a society which generally has yet to be ravaged by violent crime.
A mixed race people of African, European and Indian descent, the Seychellois are an example of social and cultural harmony, their easy-going nature and ready smiles likely a result of the pristine environment in which they live.
For a remote nation of far-flung islands (the nearest landmass is East Africa, some 1,000 miles to the west) whose main source of income is tourism and fishing, there are few outward signs of poverty, not even in the ‘urban’ sprawl of Victoria, which rises up from an impressive natural harbour and on to the lower reaches of the 900m Morne Seychellois, the peak which dominates Mahe.
Those Seychellois well off enough to travel often visit Europe, South Africa and, increasingly Dubai, for shopping trips, loading up with luxury goods (often unavailable at home) as well as more mundane necessities (also often unavailable!) such as car parts.
In this self-styled paradise whose slogan is ‘As pure as it gets’, the main revenue source is a tourism industry which remains a firm favourite for the jet set, from Hollywood stars and singers to global business leaders, or for once-in-a-lifetime honeymooners.
The well-heeled often check into the exclusive resort islands such as Denis, Alphonse or Fregate, where $2,000-plus per night will buy you a luxury villa, with private outdoor jacuzzi, separate lounge and 15-minute helicopter transfer from Mahe.
While many visitors come to sit on a deserted beach and soak up the sun in luxury, others flock to the Seychelles for its unique flora and fauna, such as a species of beetle which lives only on Fregate island, or the Coco de Mer tree which is indigenous only to Praslin Island.
For many ordinary Seychellois, working in an exclusive resort is the closest they will ever come to trappings of real wealth, however, and many are on the lookout for employment opportunities abroad – the Gulf and Europe in particular – to escape a system which, while providing excellent welfare, still has harsh hard currency restrictions and periodic shortages of everyday products such as cigarettes.
There are, of course, many foreigners who would gladly take their place to work in such an attractive setting, though with work permits costing a cool $5,000, foreign labour is a luxury which more organisations are looking to do without.
At the Seychelles Hospitality and Tourism Training College in Victoria, hopeful graduates look for openings in the industry, though in this dominantly matriarchal society it is women who often head the queue for jobs, and not just in tourism. Indeed, the local males’ generally less than enthusiastic approach to work means that gangs of construction labourers are imported – as they are in the Gulf – from the Indian subcontinent to work on the latest exclusive resort development or to build a new road, while Kenya and Mauritius provide a significant number of workers in the country’s hotels.
Occupancies in the Seychelles’ hotels have, according to officials, remained largely steady, even in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the US. With its main tourist market being Europe and the destination perceived to be relatively safe, the Seychelles has escaped the worst effects of the global tourism fallout.
Of more immediate concern to the Seychelles’ tourist sector, however, are international environmental issues, in particular with relation to its stunning, ecologically-rich and colourful coral reefs, living bodies on which many Seychellois depend for tourism and fishing revenue.
With climate change and, specifically, global warning, slowly raising seawater temperatures around the world and with some of the country’s reefs having suffered bleaching in recent years, fears are slowly being realised. It may be many more years – if ever – before this situation is reversed.
Perhaps the Seychellois’ relaxed view on life will help them overcome what could become major issues. But for now, as the next planeload of moneyed visitors arrives at the international airport to spend dollars in dreamlike resorts, such concerns may remain simmering on the backburner for some time.