The white sand, turquoise water and bright wildlife of the Seychelles just can't help looking like a tourism advert at all times. For long, this paradise was seen as an exclusive destination, however, reflecting a global trend, this group of 115 islands off the coast of East Africa is seeing visitor numbers climb ever higher. Many islands in the archipelago are at a crossroad in terms of tourism growth: some are facing the risk of a declining product and visitor experience due to unsustainable growth.
And yet tourism is a vital part of this nation's economy, accounting for more than sixty percent of its GDP. The key issue for the government is working out how to maintain this industry, without letting it overrun the place.
Protecting the fragile ecosystem is already at risk, as plastic washes up on the country's shores hardly touched by mankind.
On the one hand, nearly half of the Seychelles, 455 square kilometres, are classed as protected areas including two UNESCO world heritage sites: the Mai Valley and its indigenous coco de mer palm trees, and the Aldabra Atoll, home to the Seychelles' famed giant tortoises. By later this year, 30 percent of the country's 1.3 million square km of marine territory will have protected status too.
As part of their conservation efforts, the government introduced a temporary ban in 2015 on the construction of new hotels on the three main islands. "Development is kept to a minimum and that it does not really destroy what we inherited", said Tourism Minister Didier Dogley to AFP.
However, new resorts, approved before the 2015 ban, will add an additional 3,000 hotel rooms to the already existing 6,000. "We believe that we can go up to 500,000 tourists, that is just an estimate for the time being," said Dogley.
The tourism industry has implemented a certification programme Seychelles Sustainable Tourism Label and by 2023 half of the large hotels and guesthouses shall be certified, states the latest strategy of the government. The Seychelles Tourism Master Plan: Destination 2023 has been created last year, aiming to increase investment in sustainable tourism, support small establishments and increase locals' participation in the sector.
The Seychelles Sustainable Tourism Foundation has been advocating that the archipelago becomes a Global Sustainable Tourism Council certified destination. Poverty alleviation, gender equity and environmental sustainability (including climate change) are the main cross-cutting issues addressed in the criteria.
Large hotel groups have put measures in place to limit their impact on the environment, such as having their own vegetable gardens and reducing plastic and energy use. Smaller, Seychellois-owned establishments, though not leaving the same ecological footprint, sometimes lack the resources to match these efforts, despite government incentives.
The small, hilly country is forced to import more than 90 percent of its goods, and most of the energy needed to keep the islands running is derived from oil-powered generators. Still, the pursuit of eco-friendly growth over profit alone has struck a chord with some visitors.
"We didn't know much about the ecological side of tourism in the Seychelles... but once here, it really hit us," said Romain Tonda, a 28-year-old French tourist on his honeymoon on Cousin Island, fringed by coral reef. "It's not perfect, but we can see that it's something that is important for the Seychellois."
Watch the video to learn more about the efforts to preserve the Seychelles' natural resources.