Tourism in the Seychelles: A Counterfeit Paradise?

Newly independent and socialist, the Seychelles are striving for social reform and nationalized industries. Yet tourism, Seychelles' major industry, threatens nationalist ideology and socialist ambitions. It has spawned an array of economic, social and cultural contradictions.

An archipelago of 92 islands, with 67,000 inhabitants, the Seychelles lie east of Nairobi and southwest of Sri Lanka over 400,000 square miles in the Indian Ocean. With their median temperature of 74°, surfeit of beaches and natural beauty, the islands attract tourists year-round. Brochures depict the Seychelles as "far removed from the march of civilization," "a home of sea, birds, trees, peace, beauty, quiet and hospitality," "an oasis of sun-drenched cays, lapped by the Indian Ocean."

SEA, SAND AND SOCIALISM

As Western tourists paddle in the cays, the state controlled radio stations and party newspaper expound the government's criticism and resentment of capitalism and imperialism, Such contradictory messages are not merely cosmetic paradoxes, indigenous to the task of nation-building. In the Seychelles, they indicate deeper inconsistencies.

Tourism was first initiated by the British to help the Seychelles to meet its balance of payments. In 1969, a British Economic Aid Mission visited the Seychelles and concluded that "the possibilities of tourism would enable Seychelles to become economically self-sufficient within ten to fifteen years."

Before the construction of an international airport on Mahe in 1971, the few stray adventurers who arrived by steamer were housed as honorary guests at colonial clubs or in one of Mahe's small hotels. In 1966, 529 tourists visited the islands. By 1972, tourist numbers swelled to 3,100. By the mid-seventies visitors numbered 37,000, and in 1980, 79,000.

The completion of the airport was followed immediately by road and hotel construction, mainly on Mahe. Job opportunities led to heavy migration from the outer islands, resulting in food and housing shortages and reduced labor supplies for agricultural production. While 80% of the population had been employed in agriculture and forestry in 1947, by 1977 these sectors accounted for only 17% of total employment. Hotel competition for produce led to food imports and increasing dependency on tourism.

From 1961 to 1979 the value of food imports from South Africa increased by 200%, those from West Germany by 500% and from France by 700%. These increases reflect attempts to cater to the increasing number of foreign tastes as well as an increase in local demands.

The need for imported food is also reflected in the market for fish. Coastal waters have been fished out because of tourist demand for seafood. Now the best fishing areas are accessible only by motorboats or bigger fishing vessels. From 1978 to 1979, fish imports nearly doubled.

Four-fifths of the tourists who visit the Seychelles book their holidays through foreign tour operators. Even more stay in foreign-owned hotels. Thus, the bulk of tourist revenues do not benefit the country. While job opportunities increased during the initial period of infrastructural growth required for tourism, employment has now fallen off. Construction opportunities in 1979 were half of what they were in 1977. The bulk of jobs now available go to women in the service sector.

Tourism in the Seychelles is characterized by heavy private investment with ownership in the hands of foreigners and local elites. Socialist leader Albert Rene brought to power by a coup in 1977, has attempted to control more of the profits from tourism, yet nationalization of local tourist-related industries - such as boating, fishing and crafts - will discourage local initiative.

SOCIAL REFORM?

Seychellois society has long been divided between a relatively small elite of "Grands Blancs," white descendants of European colonizers; a large mulatto and black class, the descendants of African slaves who were dumped on the islands; and Chinese and Indian immigrants. In the past, Grands Blancs have prided themselves on their European association and values and have looked down on the Creole population. Now a middle class, composed of government beaurocrats and managers in tourist and related industries, aspire to upper class, Westernized lifestyles.

While Rene seeks to equalize economic opportunity, tourism undermines his efforts. The hotel industry exemplifies the subtle process by which class inequalities are in fact reinforced.

Any employment that requires interaction with tourists demands personal qualities usually associated with elites. The ability to understand, communicate, act like and entertain tourists, to foresee and manage their needs are valuable skills in service industries - skills which Western-oriented elites most often have. The more adept workers are at "impression management" and cross-cultural communication, the more they are rewarded. In this way elites are culled into the highest paid positions, while the lower classes, indifferent to tourists' cultural concerns, remain in the poorest paid positions.

In hotels, Creole maids and waitresses have separate changing and eating facilities from the management team of expatriates and elites, an arrangement which reinforces class distinctions. While Creole individuals with the incentive to acquire management skills may ascend to better paying jobs, they often reject their Creole background in the process.

One vehicle for upward mobility is the hotel training school. Here students learn foreign languages and how to type tourists through courses in "Visitor Psychology," "Courtesy," "Beauty Care" and European history. Yet the school only attracts those with relative financial security who do not need to start work at a young age and can afford to postpone employment. Students at the hotel school do internships in hotels where, as one manager put it, "they are taught to smile, be nice, and love tourists." Hotel management teams make it a custom to instill workers with manners and communication skills by occasionally asking them to lunch in management facilities where they must converse in English or French. The end result is the creation of an upwardly mobile population seeking Western identification and rejecting its Creole roots.

Waiters covet tourist addresses in pocket notebooks, enhancing their status with allusions to overseas acquaintances. Women quit their jobs to frequent hotel discotheques in hopes of embracing, however temporarily, tourist affluence.

This affluence whets local appetite for foreign commodities - clothes, personal accessories, and other consumer goods. From 1977 to 1979, clothing and personal accessory imports doubled. Nearly nine out often Seychellois now have radios.

INFLUENCE FROM THE WEST

As is the case in other developing areas, tourism cannot be separated from other Western influences. The Seychelles house an American tracking station and U.S. personnel have influenced local values and priorities, as have foreign movies and videotapes. Americans also paved the way for tourists as prime catches for local women. As one Seychelloise grandmother put it; "If a Seychellois asked me to marry him, I wouldn't; but if an American asked me, I'd jump at his neck."

Foreign media creates false stereotypes of Westerners that are reinforced by tourists and feed a host society with illusions. Contrary to the impression often made by tourists, Europeans are not accustomed to lengthy periods of leisure, to being served day and night, to spending amounts for goods that are several times more expensive than what everyone else pays. They do not publicly, fulfill their fantasies, sexual or otherwise, or usually parade along public streets in string bikinis.

Tourism is a capricious industry, founded on the fashion trends of a Western bourgeoisie. In its present state, international tourism offers escapism and fulfillment of romantic notions, only rarely a sincere experience of another culture. At best, tourism allows an economy to run in place. A story in the Seychelles captures this irony:

In the Seychelles, it is the custom for fishermen to go to sea very early in the morning and return with their catch by 9:00 or 10:00 a.m. They can spend the rest of their day as they choose. A tourist watched for several days as the fishermen returned from sea and spent the rest of the day idle, gazing at the ocean. Amazed, the tourist finally approached one of the fishermen and asked: "Why do you sit here all day long? Why don't you fish all day? You could sell more fish and make a lot more money."

The fisherman then asked the tourist, "What would I do with the money?" Whereupon the tourist replied, "Well you could afford to do just as you wanted. You could sit on the beach all day long."

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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