Sustainable growth in an island paradise | Globalization | DW | 20.08.2013
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Sustainable growth in an island paradise

With tourism the most important sector of Seychelles' economy, the challenge is balancing economic growth with environmental protection - and making sure not just foreigners benefit from the country's tourism boom.

Rolph Payet doesn't mince his words. Seychelles' environment minister is quick to admit that one of his government's major priorities right now is to increase economic growth in the country. That, in turn, is due to rising development and population numbers. "As a population grows, you just simply have to find food, jobs and shelter for the population," Payet says.

Everyone agrees: the easiest way to increase short-term economic growth in Seychelles is to boost tourism. With it's pristine sandy beaches, the island state off the coast of eastern Africa is a popular destination – and not just for honeymooning royal couples, like Princess Madeleine of Sweden, or Great Britain's Prince William.

A Seychelles Magpie Robin on Cousin Island, Seychelles (copyright: DW/ A. Roensberg)

The Magpie Robin is an endemic bird that was recently saved from extinction on Seychelles

Annually, some 175,000 visitors come to Seychelles - mainly from France, Italy and Germany - making tourism the economy's most important industry sector. The total contribution of tourism to the country's gross domestic product is more than 50 percent. In fact, after Macau, Maldives and Aruba, Seychelles is the fourth most tourism-dependent country in the world.

But, there are only so many tourists Seychelles can accommodate without starting to infringe on what attracts the tourists to the country in the first place: namely, its diverse environment featuring unique birds, fish, and plants. Half of the island state's territory is under some sort of protection as a reserve or conservation area.

Greener tourism

According to the environment minister, the tourism industry is starting to change its priorities slowly. Payet says it was the hotels that financed programs to eradicate rats - a threat to endemic species - from several of the island state's 115 islands.

Authorities have also introduced a new label for sustainable tourism operations. Hotels who want to carry the label have to fulfil certain criteria, explains Philomena Hollanda of the Seychelles Tourism Board. "All their day-to-day operations have to be ecologically friendly," she told DW. "They have to practice energy efficiency, proper waste management and water conservation."

Launched in mid-2012, so far only three hotels have successfully applied for the label, with all three of them located on Seychelles main island of Mahé. Hollanda says this low number is more likely due to lack of awareness of the program and the long auditing process, rather than unwillingness on behalf of hotel owners.

The Seychelles Sustainable Tourism Label (Copyright: Seychelles Tourism Board)

The Aldabra giant tortoise, endemic to Seychelles, is displayed on the label promoting sustainability

Besides the environmental aspect, there is another challenge in making tourism in Seychelles sustainable: that of ensuring the Seychellois people benefit from growth in tourism. There is concern about the tourism industry here increasingly relying on expatriate workers.

Keeping locals involved

In 2010, over twenty percent of those employed in tourism were foreign workers. Many of the large four and five star hotels rely on expats because, according to a planning document released by the tourism board, many locals are simply not skilled enough to take on the jobs.

Ownership is another concern. Locals here mainly run small hotels or self-catering apartments, in fact, renting out accommodation of 24 rooms or less is restricted to Seychellois. But, running larger hotels is open to foreigners and, out of thirty existing large hotels, thirteen are fully owned by foreign organizations. There are further large hotel development projects underway or in the planning stage on the main island of Mahé that are also financed by European or Arab investors.

Seychelles' President James Michel recently said his government had to enhance conditions to allow locals to "become key stakeholders in the tourism industry." Besides demanding that hotels act in an environmentally-conscious way, the new sustainable tourism label requires hotel owners to document some sort of community involvement and promote the Seychellois cultural heritage.

"We put a binder with information about cultural events in our guests' rooms," explains Hubert Habet from 'Hanneman Residence', a complex of self-catering apartments.

Solar panels on the roof of Hanneman Residences at Beau Vallon, Seychelles (copyright: DW/ A. Roensberg

At Hanneman Residences on the island of Mahé, electricity is generated by solar panels

"There are theater plays that we recommend, or the 'Festival Kreol' week in October. We also have a nearby bazaar where you can try authentic cuisine, and there is some local music and stores."

Still, Andrea, a German tourist, says that she has seen two different worlds colliding during her holiday in Seychelles.

"On the one hand, we've seen paradise," she told DW, "but on the other hand we've looked behind the scenes a bit and talked to Seychellois. They don't seem to have a very good life at all."

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