x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Seychelles' island idyll appeals to UAE tastes

Seychelles is proving a destination of choice for travelers from around the world. And Middle East tourists are particularly taken with its holiday attractions.

The Seychelles may have lost direct air links to Europe once flown by its national airline, but Etihad Airways' investment in the carrier has helped to bring a surge of new flights and tourists from the Middle East. Courtesy Banyan Tree Hotels
The Seychelles may have lost direct air links to Europe once flown by its national airline, but Etihad Airways' investment in the carrier has helped to bring a surge of new flights and tourists from the Middle East. Courtesy Banyan Tree Hotels

In 1770, a group of French colonists and slaves landed on the island of Sainte Anne, becoming the first settlers in what is now known as the Seychelles.

And a little over 200 years after the first colonials made landfall the fate of the Indian Ocean archipelago changed again as another group of outsiders arrived.

The landing of the first jet aircraft at Seychelles International Airport in 1971 signalled a new dawn for the economy. Tourism replaced plantations as the largest economic sector and remains the mainstay today.

Since gaining independence from the United Kingdom in 1976, per capita output has expanded by about seven times, largely thanks to the tourism sector, which employs about 30 per cent of the labour force and provides more than 70 per cent of the country's hard currency earnings, according the CIA World Factbook.

"Probably it wasn't until the mid to late 1980s and then suddenly people became aware of this beautiful place in the Indian Ocean but didn't really know anything about it," says Grant Holmes, the regional director for Eden Luxury Group.

"The problem then was there wasn't a lot of choice of accommodation, certainly not at the top end of the luxury market and it really wasn't until another jump forward of the mid-1990s that that started to change."

However, with seven five-star resorts on the 28km by 8km main island of Mahé, just one of the 115 islands in the Seychelles, and a range of more affordable accommodation including several guest houses, there is no shortage of choice for travellers today.

Tourism in the Seychelles has come a long way since the early 1970s, but there is still a lot of work to be done, according to Elsia Grandcourt, the chief executive of the Seychelles Tourism Board.

"Until a year ago, the portfolio was being held by the highest office, which is the president himself. Only last year was it passed on to a dedicated minister," Ms Grandcourt says.

Traditionally, Europe was the largest market for the Seychelles and it remains the biggest today. But the economic downturn on the continent was a wake-up call.

"It was important for us having seen the world economic platform, how it was going, the economic crisis that our core market has been going through, the need to diversify and to look at new markets," says Ms Grandcourt.

One such market is the Middle East, which grew about 10 per cent last year.

As of the week ending April 7, the UAE was fifth in a list of the top nations to visit the Seychelles, behind France, Germany, Italy, and Russia, according to Seychelles' National Bureau of Statistics.

Visitors from the Middle East tend to favour the top-end resorts, such as Maia Luxury Resort and Spa on Mahé, which costs a minimum of €2,000 (Dh9,587) a night.

"We have the advantage to be on the main island, which the Arab clients like a lot. They don't like to travel again. They like to arrive and to be arrived," says Frederic Vidal, the general manager of the Maia.

Middle East visitors make up between 20 and 25 per cent of Maia's clientele.

"The key point for the Middle East clientele is the privacy in Maia. All the villas are extremely secluded and private. Even for the female clientele, they feel extremely secure. This is key," says Mr Vidal.

"You have a butler in each villa and, of course, you can have a male or a female butler. Of course for Arabic clientele they request a female butler and we can provide that."

Banyan Tree Seychelles on Mahé is also vying for bookings from Middle East visitors.

Between 20 to 30 per cent of its guests are from the region and the number is growing each year, according to Frank Wesselhoefft, the general manager of Banyan Tree Seychelles.

"Because of the close proximity and because so many Middle Eastern guests are coming over here, they kind of say it's the eighth emirate," he says.

It has become so popular with UAE tourists that the Abu Dhabi private plane operator Royal Jet partnered the UK's Eden Luxury Group and selected the Seychelles as the location for its new bespoke travel agency, Royal Jet Luxury Vacations.

"It just seemed completely natural. It has all of the hallmarks; it has the wow factor," says Shane O'Hare, the president and chief executive of Royal Jet.

"The other great thing is that it is four hours from Abu Dhabi, has no time zone change and it's quite extraordinary. We didn't even think of anywhere else."

And it is not the only UAE company to have confidence in the Seychelles.

Etihad Airways purchased a 40 per cent stake in Air Seychelles last March, saving the carrier from the brink of bankruptcy. The airline returned to profit earlier this year after three years of significant losses.

"If you look at our history, last year we lost the direct flights from Europe because Air Seychelles pulled back because they had to downsize. But now the frequency of flights that we are getting with the Middle Eastern carriers makes us more accessible than we were before," says Ms Grandcourt.

The Seychelles also started venturing into China in 2006 to attract visitors in the rapidly expanding mid to high end of the market. And it is starting to pay off.

"We had 4,000 Chinese visitors last year. The year before we were under 1,000," says Ms Grandcourt.

"We were in Beijing and now we have moved and extended a second [tourism office] in Shanghai. And now that Air Seychelles has repositioned itself to do direct flights to Hong Kong, we are looking at the possibility of repositioning ourselves there as well."

The Seychelles is now also working in South America and is starting to inch into India.

"Obviously work has been done before but you need to have continuity and you need to have that presence on the ground," says Ms Grandcourt.

"There is huge potential for us, especially with the honeymooners, the Bollywood stars. That is not a problem because they can connect through [the Middle East]."

The Seychelles will continue to push tourism because it is the mainstay of the economy. The task is easier than in some countries - but it still has competition.

"When we say we have two islands in one it is because of the diversity of the islands. You have Mahé, for example, which is granitic with huge boulders and then you have the low-lying flat coralline islands, which is what you get in the Maldives," says Ms Grandcourt. "We say what you can get in the Maldives, you can get it in the Seychelles."