• Garden of Eden

    The beauty of Seychelles has lured tourists who are keen to sample a unique piece of paradise.

    Garden of Eden

    It’s quite something to get the stamp of approval from George Clooney, or even way back in the ’70s from Mick Jagger. But to be chosen as the destination for the honeymoon of the future king of England speaks volumes.

    In May 2011, newly-wed royals William and Kate spent their first week together as husband and wife on North Island in Seychelles. The couple hired an exclusive resort that ‘attracts the super-rich’ as the Guardian newspaper put it at the time.

    Former visitors to what it described as ‘the Christian Louboutin of what travel types call barefoot luxury’ include A-listers such as Liz Hurley, Jennifer Aniston, JK Rowling and Pierce Brosnan, not to mention George Clooney and Amal Alamuddin who reportedly spent their honeymoon there last year.

    ‘Visitors to the fecund island of three small peaks and two white powder beaches stay in huge two-bedroom, butler-serviced villas made by Balinese thatchers and Tanzanian wood carvers,’ said the Guardian. ‘They have indoor and outdoor showers, staggeringly large bathrooms and floor-to-ceiling windows opening onto decks with private gazebos and plunge pools. Each villa has an electric golf buggy to nip around the sandy tracks.’

    The 115 islands that comprise Seychelles lie some 1 600 km off the African coast and are dispersed over 1 million km2 of the Indian Ocean. The largest, Mahe, is 27 km long and 8 km wide, and home to around 90% of Seychelles’ 90 000-strong population (in terms of numbers, the country is Africa’s smallest).

    Seychellois culture is mixed, with strong links to the French who were the former colonisers (they arrived only in 1770). In 1814, the islands fell under British rule following the end of the Napoleonic wars.

    A series of plantations was established following the entry of the first settlers and this provided crops such as vanilla and cinnamon, which are still grown today but now only in small amounts – unlike in previous years when agriculture was the entire source of income. Rather, since independence in 1976, the islands have come to rely on their remote geographical location and pristine natural qualities to market themselves as an exclusive tourist destination.

    Only 15 of the islands have accommodation for tourists, divided into three categories: villas, resorts and private islands. Most of the resorts are on Mahe.

    According to the government, tourism accounts for about 20% of GDP, providing employment for around 15% of people. The appeal of tourism has proved to be a double-edged sword, as most visitors come from Europe, the continent hardest hit by the economic downturn from 2008.

    As the World Bank put it: ‘Affected by the economic slowdown in Europe, economic growth decelerated in 2014. The tourism and manufacturing sectors grew at a slower pace than anticipated.

    ‘The tourism sector grew by a meagre 1% despite concerted efforts to diversify markets, and tourism receipts fell by 3% due to exchange-rate fluctuations.’

    The global economic recession has also hit the islands’ fishing industry.

    Fishing, especially for tuna, is the main source of foreign income (it overtook tourism in 2009). According to government reports, the fishing sector brought in 97% of export earnings in 2008 and employs just under 20% of the workforce. ‘The Seychelles fishing industry has a strong connection to Heinz, which owns more than half of the Seychelles Tuna Canning Factory,’ it says.

    Prawns are also a big source of income in the industry – there is an aquaculture prawn farm on Coëtivy Island, about 300 km from Mahe, which raises ‘giant black tiger prawns’ for export, as well as an oyster farm on the island of Praslin. The majority of the fish exports go to Japan, France, Germany, the UK and neighbouring Mauritius.

    The manufacturing sector is dominated by fish processing. Although Seychelles has implemented measures to prevent overfishing – one of its main concerns, along with the effects of climate change – the industry was also impacted on by the piracy problem off the coast of Somalia, which prevented many foreign vessels from using Seychelles as a base.

    The situation, however, has improved in recent years, following international efforts to police the waters off the Horn of Africa.

    Although the government is attempting to diversify the economy, Seychelles faces a series of problems. Because nearly everything has to be imported, the country is ‘facing strong balance-of-payments pressures’, says the World Bank.

    ‘European recovery is fragile and remains vulnerable moving forward. As a result, the tourism sector may be adversely affected, further reinforced by the instability in the Russian market, one of the main markets.

    On the domestic front, the key downside risk to the economic outlook remains the ability of the government to implement its reform agenda, particularly in areas that most support economic growth in the near term.

    ‘On the positive side, recent developments such as diminishing oil prices will have positive impact on the balance of payments, partially compensated by the dollar appreciation given the larger exposure of Seychelles to the European market for its exports (i.e. tourism receipts),’ states the bank.

    ‘However, the risks are manageable. The economy remains highly dependent on tourist but diversification to non-traditional tourism markets continues.’

    The government has turned to putting the country on a private-sector dominated growth trajectory.

    The African Economic Outlook reports that in November, the government approved a medium-term national development strategy for 2015 to 2019 that encompasses four key areas: the environment, social development, social governance and economic development. ‘However, with its limited land space and high population density, the country has a delicate balance to observe in addressing land use, conservation and economic development,’ it says.

    ‘The country has begun to design policies and plans to address these issues holistically.’ It also noted that ‘financial services and ICT are expected to continue to grow and provide opportunities for economic diversification’.

    Meanwhile, the government is trying to expand the current tourism strategy to increase Seychelles’ appeal as a destination of choice.

    The country’s Minister of Tourism and Culture Alain St.Ange told parliament recently that Seychelles ‘will continue to be promoted not only as a luxury destination but as one that is affordable and where establishments are managed by Seychellois families’.

    He added that ‘visibility is the key to market a country, and we always need to find ways to remain visible’.

    One of the most distinctly visible symbols of Seychelles is the Coco de Mer. Weighing up to 30 kg, it’s the product of a rare species of palm tree found only on the islands.

    The nuts, the world’s biggest, resemble the form of a women’s pelvis. Many legends have sprung up around them, including one that they were the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and Seychelles was the site of the original Garden of Eden.

    Many would find it hard to disagree that the islands certainly are paradise.

    By John Rossouw
    Image: Gallo/GettyImages