The palm trees have needle-like spines. A dove, (Tutrel Koko in the local Creole) warbles overhead. A group of tourists are on a sweaty nature walk in the jungle of Silhouette Island in the Seychelles.
Tourism is booming in this idyllic tropical archipelago. Last year the number of visitors reached a peak of 141,000. Although there are small, cheap guesthouses, the country has forged a reputation as a luxury destination. The most expensive accommodation costs €12,000 A NIGHT. Over the next two years, at least five new luxury hotels are planned AND a Dubai-style man-made island.
Our nature guide, sixty-something South African, Ron Gerlach, has lived a peaceful existence on the steep granite outcrop of Silhouette for nine years, slowly restoring the island’s flora and fauna. He breeds endemic giant tortoises and releases them into the wild. He kills off plants that threaten to take over such as cinnamon trees introduced by former plantation owners. “Tourism is the best option, rather than cash-crops,” says Ron, as he grubs around to search for a rare amphibian. “With tourism we actually restore the island’s biodiversity.”
Exclusive private island retreats such as Cousine, Fregate and North, where it costs thousands of euros to holiday, are using some of their clients’ money to: rid islands of rats; plant native trees and monitor turtles and rare birds. Several species have been brought back from the brink of extinction.
The tourism board realises that it is the natural beauty that is Seychelles’ greatest asset. Its strapline, accompanied by pictures of gorgeous beaches, is: “as pure as it gets”.
Silhouette is the third largest island of 100 or so, but home to just twenty-five Seychellois families and their school, clinic, church and shop (which, when I peeked inside seemed to stock just tinned meat and soap powder.) The only roads are rough tracks that peter out into spider-web laced avenues and then onto picture-perfect beaches. Until last year, the only vehicles were tractors. Now there is also a fleet of electric golf buggies! The island’s new and only hotel uses them to transport guests from the wharf to their Wi-Fi-enabled, air-conditioned rooms.
Our group of eight sweating hikers were all guests at the resort, which, severely behind schedule, was still a partial building site. Now complete, it is one of the biggest hotels in the country with 110 villas, some with private pools.
As I had wandered along the beach, I met some of the Indian labourers building the spa. They had climbed up a coconut tree to get green coconuts and offered me one to drink. We smiled and exchanged a few words in simple English. Then they took me to see their living quarters: a large tin shed. There were three enormous bunk beds with twenty mattresses on each level and no air-conditioning. They told me that they sleep two to a mattress. They weren’t happy. “Toilets no good. Too much heat. Too much mosquito. Eating no good.”
The hotel staff – waiters and porters – weren’t happy either. They complained about their living conditions and took me to see a typical staff bedroom: six share one room. Although the hotel had only been open a few weeks, they had already gone on strike over pay and conditions.
Environmentally it was bad news too. Approaching the island on the hour-long boat ride from the main island of Mahe, it wasn’t the scent of takamaka trees that greeted me, but a foul pong. Construction workers were burning waste, including foam mattresses. Residents told me that sometimes the smoke cloaks the island in a thick smog. They worry that toxins may enter the food chain.
Despite plentiful sunshine, there’s not a single solar panel at the hotel. Instead, six diesel generators provide power. Already another resort is planned for the other side of the island. On our hike, as we ducked to avoid giant spiders’ webs so strong they sometimes snare small birds, we saw yellow plastic tape marking the route of a cross-island road that will be cleared so a new ‘eco’-lodge can be built.
And there is the dilemma: tourism does much good – rehabilitating ecosystems and providing employment and foreign exchange – but it also means environmental damage.
There are social implications too. Hotels are blocking access to public beaches.
With so many new hotels about to be built, is it just coincidence that this month, the tourism board will change that strapline?
No longer will it be ‘as pure as it gets’.