Paradise for sale
A tour of the capital of the hundred or so islands that make up the Republic of Seychelles.
I was refused entry to the third most popular nightclub in the world's smallest capital city. The owner of the nameless dive in what passes for the suburbs of Victoria - the capital of the hundred or so islands that make up the Republic of Seychelles - pointed wearily to a sign on the door, in English and French, reminding would-be patrons that full-length trousers were a precondition for entry. Unfortunately, my pants - fashionable though they were - did not quite meet the top of my shoes and my path was barred.
Now, I'm not inexperienced in the ways of the world; I have dined, wined, sipped and supped in a wide and representative range of all of mankind's entertainment venues. I also know that small pieces of paper with pictures of, say, dead American presidents, often tend to open doors that would otherwise remain closed.
"Will 10 bucks make my pants longer?" I asked the owner.
To my great surprise, he refused. To my even greater shock, he told me that rules are rules and that there were limits to the purchasing power of my American currency. I was a little shocked that - in a country where foreigners are snapping up land and where citizenship is being sold like souvenir T-shirts - a Seychellois was telling me that my money was no good.
The government of Seychelles could learn much from the owner of that nightclub.
From the moment one steps onto the tarmac of Victoria International Airport - a single-runway facility located precariously on the eastern tip of the island of Mahe - it is clear that Seychelles is very much open for business. A bewildering array of tour companies have set up shop outside the airport, and in the 10 minutes I spent waiting for transportation to my first port of call, dozens of flyers advertising twilight cruises, luxury hotels, restaurants and nature reserves were thrust into my hand.
En route to my first destination - the north side of the island and the Hilton Northolme - the tour bus passed through Victoria, the world's smallest capital city.
Situated on Mahe, the largest of the islands and islets that make up the Seychelles, Victoria is named, like so many other cities in what was once the British Empire, after the monarch by that name. More than any other place in Seychelles, Victoria encapsulates the variety of cultures that have left their mark on the islands. British colonial architecture and French-style street cafes are enveloped by the scents and tastes of India and China; from the steps of the Anglican church, one can see the tip of the mosque that serves the islands' tiny Muslim population. Life is conducted to the lilting melodies of Creole music.
If driving on the left-hand side of the road was not enough to make one feel as if one were in Britain, Little Ben was. In the dead center of the town stands a replica of the most famous clock in the world - London's Big Ben. Across the road, just outside the courthouse stands a statue of Queen Victoria, erected in 1900 to celebrate the monarch's diamond jubilee (which was actually in 1897, but, in Seychelles time, three years is only a minor delay). Just around the corner is the Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke Market - a colorful collection of stalls selling fruit, spices and souvenirs - named after the former British governor of the islands. Compared to the rest of the islands, Victoria is positively bustling: It has the only traffic light, the only supermarket and the only banks in the country. Home to 25,000 residents - almost a third of the Seychelles' total population - Victoria is the country's cultural, commercial and social center. There are two churches, one mosque and a Sikh temple, as well as three nightclubs and countless bars and cafes.
The road wrapping around the uninhabited northern tip of Mahe, toward the more hospitable and sheltered beaches on the western side, hugs the towering 1,000-meter-high granite peaks as if it feared slipping off into the Indian Ocean. The Hilton is carved into the granite cliff that encloses a private cove. Like many of the hotels and resorts on the Seychelles' 13 islands with accommodations, the Hilton Northolme tries to blend into its surroundings. A large part of this is due to the strict legal restrictions imposed on resort developers.
In the past two months alone, however, the Seychelles government has announced half a dozen development deals to develop luxury hotels and resorts with companies from South Africa, the United Arab Emirates, Mauritius and the United States. The largest such deal - with the Cape Town-based developer Pinnacle Point Holdings - includes a golf and casino complex on a previously undeveloped island, just off of Mahe. The $1.4 billion project will require 60 hectares of land to be reclaimed from the sea, will take four years to complete and will be linked to Mahe via a palm-lined causeway.
This meshes with the government's vision for the Seychelles's future. Verena Joseph of the Seychelles Tourist Board says the government hopes to bring in 154,000 tourists in 2007 - 17 percent more than last year. With a population of just over 80,000, that would be the equivalent of 14 million tourists visiting Israel.
Alan Mason, whose family owns one of the island's largest tour operators, Mason's Travel, says the number of luxury hotels on the island has more than doubled over the past five years. "Officially, you can't buy land here if you're not Seychellois. But if you pour billions into the country, the government will throw citizenship into the deal," he says.
One of the Seychellois' greatest concerns is the local population finding itself marginalized in its own country - bought out of its inheritance by big business and a government hungry for foreign investment. This is something that greatly disturbs Kantilal Jivan Shah, a third-generation Seychellois who, at age 86, still runs the import company his grandfather founded at the end of the 19th century.
Kanti, as he is known, is something of a Seychelles legend, with expertise in subjects ranging from cooking and palm reading, to history and conservation. As he is not shy to prove, Kanti has been featured in magazines, newspapers and documentaries in dozens of countries. Piles of cuttings, certificates and correspondence form perilous towers in every corner of his crowded office.
Kanti's conversation jumps from subject to subject with a childlike enthusiasm that it hard to keep up with. One second he's proudly displaying a rare edition of "Hebrewisms of West Africa," by Joseph J. Williams, and the next he has moved on to how his name was included in the United Nations Environmental Program Global 500 Roll of Honor.
Is it true that money can buy you pretty much anything you want in Seychelles?
"Exactly!" he thunders. "You can buy an island ... you can do anything. All the five-star hotels are owned by foreigners. And most of them don't employ local people; they bring in workers from Africa, Sri Lanka and India. They're chopping down the bloody forest and soon there will be nothing left for the Seychellois."
Apart from being one of the islands' major attractions, Kanti's contribution to his country is remarkable. During the dark days of single-party rule, many opponents of the government were silenced, but Kanti says his international reputation granted him the freedom to speak his mind. Not only did he speak out when he saw his government acting contrary to the best interests of the islands and their inhabitants, he also was responsible for many of the laws that now restrict unbridled construction. He is most proud of the Palm Law, which bars construction in Victoria of any building taller than a palm tree. He also was active in establishing many of the nature reserves on the islands and in protecting the wildlife.
The island of Silhouette provides an example of how preservation and conservation can sit in uncomfortable harmony with exploitation and disinheritance.
Labriz - a string of sumptuous villas and pavilions built along 15 kilometers of previously virgin beach and tucked on the outskirts of lush jungle - is the most opulent of the Seychelles' resorts. Owned by the Maldives-based Universal Resorts, the only mode of transportation is electric golf cart, in keeping with the high fuel prices and the legal imperative to safeguard the environment. Silke Teubener, the German marketing manager brought in to give the resort a European face, says the Nature Protection Trust of Seychelles has a consultant in Labriz's efforts to preserve Silhouette Island's biodiversity.
Despite this positive commitment to conservationism, questions remain regarding the human cost of such a massive foreign invasion. Labriz, for example, employs some 300 staff - only a handful of whom come from the village of La Passe, the only previously inhabited part of the island. The resort owners recently funded the renovation of the island's clinic - but the nurse on duty when I visited freely admitted that the only patients she was expecting to treat were tourists.
The vast majority of the 100 or so residents of La Passe are part of the government's massive job creation program. Throughout the Seychelles, clusters of people, armed with primitive, homemade brooms, sweep leaves from the side of the road, making neat piles of fallen flora. They receive a government stipend for this - hardly a fortune, according to one local businessman, but enough for a family unit to live a comfortable live, with many luxury items that are hard to imagine inside the rudimentary local houses. "Because the Seychellois often live in extended family homes, they can collectively afford to by plasma televisions and DVDs," he says. Those who are employed by the resort find themselves in the rather surreal position of having to clear away dense forest in order to grow non-indigenous, decorative plants.
In the course of their 400-year history, the islands were used as a naval base, a trading post and an outpost where Britain often sent troublesome leaders from its colonies - including Arab leaders in Mandate Palestine, among them Jerusalem mayor Hussein Fakhri Al-Khalidi.
The islands were uninhabited until 1609, when the crew of a British ship en route to India made the first recorded landing. After more than a century of squabbles between Britain and France over who owned the island, the islands became British territory in 1812 and a crown colony in 1903, and remained that way until independence in 1996. Within a year of independence, however, the Seychelles appeared to be destined for the same sort of instability that seems to be the fate of many African states.
The prime minister, France Albert Rene, ousted the president, James Mancham, and declared a socialist, one-party state. In 1991, possibly in response to pressure from foreign creditors and aid donors, Rene restored multi-party democracy.
According to Kanti, the Seychellois maintained their sense of tolerance throughout the country's tumultuous birth. "You see, we're all mixed here. We're Asians, Africans, Europeans - even Chinese. You can't be intolerant when you're made up of a little bit of everything," he says.
Surprising for a country that is officially Catholic, this tolerance even extends to sexual mores. It is quite common in Seychelles for couples to have children without getting married - "there's no stigma attached," Kanti insists - and the Catholic Church seems quite at ease with this situation.
"Oh yes!" he booms. "Well, what could they do? We're known as very great fuckers!"