The Seychelles is a destination most often associated with honeymoons, picture postcard beaches, impossibly azure waters and year-round sun. But what is life actually like for those sent to work there on assignment? My latest data collection trip had me walking the aisles in Victoria, one of the smallest capital cities in the world.
There are no direct flights from London and so I flew via Dubai with Air Emirates and had my first experience of the huge Airbus A380, which is rather surprising considering how often I fly. I have to say that, even sat next to an obvious food lover and exercise shirker, I’ve never had so much space on a plane. Add to that the endless entertainment and I was a happy chappy – although I expect much of this was down to it being Air Emirates, definitely one of the best airlines out there.
The Seychelles is comprised of 115 islands and I landed on the largest, Mahé, surprised that they managed to find room for a runway. The island, only 55 square miles, is rather vertiginous and so there is little space around the coast to build a town of any substantial size. Not that the Seychelles needs a big town though! Most arrivals head straight for the five star hotels or to the nearby islands of Praslin and La Digue (these are the two ‘poster’ islands you see in hospital waiting rooms and glossy travel supplements). I, however, headed for the more modest environs of Victoria and the Sunrise Hotel, which is pretty much the only place to stay actually in the town.
Expats may have the beach nearby and hiking options in the hills but they don’t have the luxury of state-of-the-art shopping malls or hi-tech gyms and the like. There is also no one-stop-shop supermarket which they may be accustomed to at home. Instead, to find your favourite brands, you have to shop around the half-dozen or so mini-mart type outlets. And even then, if you’re looking for Heinz ketchup or Kellogg’s cornflakes, you may have to make do with a cheaper alternative until the next shipment comes in. The expatriate population is fairly small, with most working in the tourism, banking, government and telecommunications fields, and although the islands are isolated and lack many home comforts, there are still numerous fine dining restaurants and social options. The opening of the Eden Plaza project in 2012 has added a certain je ne sais quoi to recreational opportunities. It’s easy to envy those who can kick back at the end of the day and sip a beer at the breezy Boardwalk Bar & Grill with a backdrop of lush hills whilst the sun disappears over the horizon. The Boardwalk is part of the Eden Plaza on Eden Island, an office, retail and recreational centre the likes of which the Seychelles hasn’t seen before. There is even an upmarket supermarket being built so perhaps you won’t have to shop around to get all your groceries in future.
Victoria has been home to the Seychelles government since the country’s independence in 1976 and is home to almost a third of Seychellois inhabitants. Named after Queen Victoria in 1941, it has a sleepy feel to it, even in the middle of the day. In fact the whole of Mahé has that sleepy oh-I’ll-do-it-later air about it. The islands have few natural resources and since the decline of the plantations, revenue very much relies on tourism and, surprisingly, the expanding tuna fishing sector. As such the economy is vulnerable to external factors, highlighted by a downturn in revenue when tourists stayed away after the Gulf War of the 1990’s. Tourism is still very much the backbone of the economy, though, and day-to-day life for those living here must be rather surreal, seeing mostly tourists in their beachwear strolling around town rather than suited and booted businesspeople.
Although by no means a powerhouse in Africa, the Seychelles actually has the second highest GDP per capita at purchasing power parity in the continent, behind oil rich Equatorial Guinea. It is also the smallest country in the world with an independent currency which is not pegged to any other. When the currency was floated to trade freely in 2008 the value of the Seychelles rupee fell by 30% almost overnight resulting in rapid inflation. Add to this the global recession and problems of piracy in the seas between the islands and Africa and things began to look a little bleak. The economy has picked up, however, and the government is in the process of developing its fiscal sector and wants the Seychelles to become an important offshore financial centre. If all goes to plan the hopes are that this sector will contribute as much as the tourism sector by 2017.
Still, the Seychelles is a quiet place and it certainly can be paradise for some who are lucky enough to live there but, for me, it’s just a little too quiet on the surface, and you wouldn’t want to get bored of paradise would you?!