Seychelles sees natural tourism partnership with Israel, Alain St.Ange, the Seychelles Minister responsible for Tourism and Culture tells Felice Friedson and The Media Line ‘We are friends of all and enemies of none’
Alain St.Ange, tourism minister of the Seychelles Islands, made an official visit to Israel last week; the purpose of which was to cultivate Israel as a tourism market for the Seychelles and to explore areas of economic and technical cooperation. Minister St.Ange, a native whose family was among the first to inhabit the Seychelles – an archipelago comprised of 115 islands in the Indian Ocean – when it was settled almost 250 years ago, is an eloquent and enthusiastic envoy for an area of the world frequently suggested as the original location of the Garden of Eden. Speaking at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel on the final night of his visit, the ambassador reflects on what the tiny island country can learn from Israel, and why his nation is an attractive and undiscovered destination of tourism.
Minister, it’s your first time visiting Israel from the Seychelles. You got a glimpse of what it’s about beyond the headlines. What are you thinking? Well, my first impression is that I should have visited Israel long ago, and I regret now that I’ve only discovered it so late. I’ll be back. This is a promise I made to myself and to the government of Israel. The mission of my trip was to make the name of Seychelles known as a brand and create a source market out of Israel for ourselves. I couldn’t miss the opportunity to visit Israel myself and I visited the Old City. There was a part of the Lord that I was able to follow and that touched me immensely. I went back to my hotel room feeling inspired, and feeling emotional about now seeing what you read in the Bible, or what you’ve heard since you were a kid. That has given me food for thought and it is something that I will, as I just told the [Israeli] tourism minister, tell the people of Seychelles. We speak of going to church, but what about going to where it all started, where it was conceived, where it was made to become real? I really leave Israel a happy man for having discovered it.
You’re looking to have Israelis discover the Seychelles. There are Israeli charters that arrive there during the Jewish holiday seasons, but it has been difficult to get direct flights from Israel year round. Is that on the agenda? Well, for now it is two fold. We’ve been able to find a second company who will also start charters at this similar time. So there will be one which is more up-market and one that is more affordable. The two companies will run side-by-side, but I say they complement each other, because they will put the word “Seychelles” even more in the public eye. Ethiopian Airlines is increasing its number of flights to the Seychelles. They have four flights a week with perfect connectivity with Israel. We need to grow the numbers and hopefully by growing the numbers we’ll able to be lucrative and be able to tell an airline company that it is viable for you to put a direct route to the Seychelles. We believe there is a market here and for the Israeli public, and when I say Israel, it’s also the Arab community that touches Israel. They are familiar and part of the same country and we are open to receiving them. We are open to offering the holiday of a lifetime for people coming from this part of the world.
Who is the second charter company?
It’s [the Israeli carrier] Arkia and Carmel Tourism Services. They will set their own charters now. We’ve cleared them already and given them permission [to fly to the Seychelles]. They will have three or four charters this year, from September into December and then they’ll build for next year.
What do you see as the most striking features that will attract Israeli tourists, or any tourists for that matter?
The Seychelles, some people say, is the Garden of Eden. A ‘Garden of Eden’ is a conception or connotation that people speak about, but Seychelles has many, many attributes. One is where we are centered, in the middle of an ocean. It is connected with the world, yet connected through airlines. It is one place where we receive everybody with no visa. We are friends of all and enemies of none, so anybody can visit the Seychelles with absolutely no visa requirement. The second thing is that we are disease-free as a country. You don’t need any inoculations or vaccinations to visit the Seychelles because we don’t have any diseases. The third major, major part, is that I trust is important to people from this part of the world – that it is safe; very safe. It is a place where you will go and come back alive for your families to see! This is an important point for Israelis today, because in Seychelles we respect people and treat everyone as a human being. In my meeting with Israel’s former president Shimon Peres only two days ago, he told me that, “Governments can be friendly, but it is the people developing friendly ties which will create peace in the world.” For us now, this mission is that I am going to get the Israelis and the Seychellois more connected as people. It will help spread the message of what is Israel, and what Israel is all about.
Are there points in common between the Seychelles and Israel?
Very little. Government to government it is very strong, but people to people it hasn’t been that strong. Yet we’ve been receiving scholarships for students; we’ve been receiving help for the police; and we’ve had specific aid programs with Israel. I am looking at Israel’s IT – we’ve made a bid to try and get their IT to the Seychelles. I’ve also been talking about what Israelis are known for: being able to grow in a desert, everything they want, for food security. We want to introduce, a bit on a larger scale, hydroponic farming, and I think with Israel we will be able to consolidate this, and really grow against the season, meaning we will then have tomatoes and lettuce year round – not just seasonally. This is something we need. Growing tourism is one thing, but being able to support and be self-sufficient in what we do is even more important than just having numbers.
You’re an archipelago of many islands, and not so far from the waters of Somalia, and pirates! You say that it’s safe. How do you allay fears of tourists coming to visit?
I think the perception of Somalis is something created by the press. You must understand that the Seychelles’ waters are five times the size of France, so our [territorial] waters are very close to the Somali border. The minute a boat is taken in Somali waters, it approaches Seychelles’ waters. That’s the image I was fighting as tourism minister – fighting pirates in Victoria [the capital], with a gun hidden under my clothes! We don’t see pirates. I only see pirates in custody disembarking from a ship of a foreign navy, whose sailors bring them ashore to the jail or to the courts, because we try them. We’ve been proactive or progressive in our approach that we said we needed to change our laws. Somebody who is caught doing an act that is against the cohesive approach of the world must be able to be tried in the Seychelles. Today we are happy that for the last three years there have been no incidents whatsoever, even in Somali waters, so this has helped us to attract cruise ships back to our area. Today, the cruise ships are back in full swing and we have more and more companies coming to Seychelles.
What do you say to the person who has no clue about the Seychelles?
Well, the easiest way of describing it is “the last paradise on earth,” and I say that with a lot of humility. Many tourism destinations exist. We all share the same thing. We all put out picture-perfect posters of beaches with palm trees. In Seychelles, we do not touch-up any picture. We do not Photoshop. What you see is what it is. When you land in Seychelles, you look, and after you’ve seen photos or postcards, you say ‘The picture far surpasses even the country that attracted us here.’ Seychelles, because of the smallness of its population – there are only 90,000 of us – our country is pristine with picture-perfect qualities. The country is clean, because we have no industries apart from tourism. It is picture-perfect. We’ve got white, sandy beaches; and turquoise blue sea that is clean and clear because there are no factories and there are not enough of us. Even if we wanted to dirty it, we can’t do it. We are too few in numbers. And we are surrounded by these pristine beaches, in the safest environment, because you have a reef in most of the areas, and for kids it is unrivaled swimming for them to enjoy themselves. But Seychelles offers more than that. And dealing with populations that don’t dive or don’t swim, I ask them, “Do you enjoy going to an aquarium?” And they say “Yes.” I say, “In Seychelles you can stand on the reef up to your knees in water, put a mask on your face, put your head under the water [and] you have the feeling you are standing in aquarium itself – it is that clear and pristine. [Seychelles is] where the treks in the mountains are in virgin mountains. Seychelles has 52% of its land area dedicated to national parks, because we want to remain what we are, as good custodians of what we’ve been blessed with. And we want, because we depend on tourism, to keep on having a consolidated long-term approach. It is for you to see today and see it again in five years or ten years when you come back. We do not want our natural assets to be depleted and our asset is our beauty that makes Seychelles what it is. This is why our building laws are strict. The eco approach to development is real and the sustainable tourism development programs are something that we maintain. We are enforcing it to the letter, because we really want to be seen as an example to the world for being conscious of the beauty we have, not only for the 90,000 of us, but for the community at large.
Tourism is about a third of your economy?
Directly it is 36%. Indirectly it is 78%. About how many tourists are coming in annually? With 90,000 people, today we have virtually just enough to accommodate up to three times the population annually. We will finish the year with about 260,000 tourists, which is for us a great number, because with this 260,000 we maintain our economy; we have a social program for our people; we have a free education system; and free medical care. Every old pensioner gets a pension from the state. Virtually everyone has a home. We manage it well. The only burden I have is that being the minister responsible for tourism, the burden of the economy lies on my shoulders and I need to ensure that we are always progressing, which is why I am in Israel now, to try and find markets at all times [and] to keep diversifying the markets so when one country has an economic difficulty, our tourism industry doesn’t die. We can keep on picking little bits from everywhere, and ensure that our tourism industry keeps on being buoyant at all times.
Can the market sustain building almost double into the next five years?
No, definitely not. Around a year and-a-half ago we did a land use plan for the Seychelles to look at exactly where we want to have the next hotel, or next tourism development. After this was done by the Lands and Planning Ministry, the Tourism Ministry came in. We said we wanted a carrying capacity. What can we build? How big a hotel? And where do we want to go? But I did not want to be arbitrary in my approach to say this is what I want. I went to find people that could do a real carrying capacity, because in a hotel you need the roads and infrastructure. You need the electricity, water, the garbage disposal. Where do we put it? More people, more garbage. And then the staffing required. You cannot have a sustainable tourism approach unless you are looking at your staffing. There is a limit to that ratio of foreign versus local staffing, because after a while you will not know you are in Seychelles anymore, if I’m only there as a foreign recruit in the hotels. So all this is being done now. We’ve done the first part on the north side of the main island of Mahe and we did the small island of La Digue; and that has given us enough material as a government for the president to have made the statement that there will be a moratorium on the construction of big hotels. This will go on for a period of time. We are still allowing the Seychelles residents to enter the game of tourism with small hotels of 10 to 20 rooms because we’ve done one appeal for the Seychellois to enter the travel industry – it is a pinnacle of our economy. And if we want it to be sustained on a longer term, the people of the country must see themselves in it. Because when they are involved, they will work with me, they will protect it, defend it, and help me to consolidate it on the long run.
Ambassador, small country, big brand, great allure. You’re trying to reach markets in Israel that are very diverse – elderly, honeymooners, people who have different budgets; how do you appeal [to them]? Well, today when we met Israel’s Tourism Minister [Yariv Levin] and afterward met the press, that question came up and I told them that Seychelles is like “one shoe fits all.” Honeymooners – yes, because we are the pristine environment and almost idyllic when you look at it for a honeymoon picture which will stay on your wall for years. You can sit with your feet in the sand. You can eat romantic dinners. You can do everything that you see in films. An elderly couple can walk into their hotel and still enjoy the activities that a young couple would do. Everything is tailored also for the older generation – they are today the bulk of people visiting Seychelles. For families, most resorts have kids’ clubs, and a family or couple can sit in their own villa and look at the pristine beach that is safe where they can swim to their heart’s content. Because we have that mix of granite and coral islands together, “island hopping” as we call it, is an asset – two holidays in one, because you’ll get a holiday with mountains and granitic boulders and clouds climbing the mountain tops. Moreover, you’ll get islands which are totally flat, coral lagoons which are perfect for swimming and snorkeling.
What can you tell us about agriculture and the cuisine? We come from five branches: France initially, Africans, Great Britain, and then Indian and Chinese. The five together have given us what we call the melting pot of cultures. That mix of people gives us our food. You see, we believe we have the best of these five branches. We’ve taken the French cuisine, adapted spices from India or China, and we’ve brought in the mainland Africa food, which is pig, but in a toned-down version, for the Europeans or Westerners to be able to appreciate. That mix today gives us that Seychellois Creole cuisine, as we have the Seychellois music and dancing. And you’ll find that it’s an adaptation of the five branches that make us who we are today. My family were farmers. They were agricultural people producing vanilla, coconut oil, dried coconut, bananas and cinnamon. Cinnamon and patchouli, which you have as the base for your perfume. Vanilla, which you put in your vanilla ice cream. In Seychelles, we were big exporters of this in the old days, but it is surpassed today by tourism. But slowly, as the world gets to be more complicated, we are going back to these routes of putting coconut into value; of putting cinnamon back into value doing the essence and the quills, cinnamon quills.
Minister, thank you for your time and giving us a glimpse of your beautiful islands of the Seychelles. Thank you very much. I think I will end by saying one thing to you. I can speak and try and sell it to you, but there is no way to better know it than to come and visit it. Come out, enjoy Seychelles!