The IDC has been entrusted with the management and development of 14 islands owned by the Government of Seychelles on a 99-year lease. Could you give us an overview of these islands?
When we talk about Seychelles most people only ever get to see the Inner Islands which comprise Mahe and all the islands within sixty miles of Mahe. Then there is another -and bigger- part of Seychelles: the Outer Islands, which are legally classified as anything from 60 miles from Mahe and beyond, there are certain islands which are as far as 1200 kilometers from Mahe.
Mahe and the Inner Islands have undergone a tourism development since the early seventies. The advent of the opening of the runway in Seychelles brought about great developments in the sector, primarily on Mahe, Praslin, La Digue and the Inner Islands.
The Outer Islands in those days were quite difficult to reach. You had to charter a boat to get across and it would take you a long period of time to get there and back, depending on which one you were going to. However, with the creation of the Islands Development Company in the early eighties, the company took over all the islands that were owned by the government with the mandate to establish a direction and sense of development because the Outer Islands were traditionally agricultural. Hence one of the first things that we did was to look at diversifying the economic activities of the Outer Islands and this is where tourism came in.
This is the reason I believe there are two paths to tourism development in the Seychelles: there are the traditional tourism activities and structures that exist on the Inner Islands and then there are those on the Outer Islands. The Outer Islands, in fact, have been fortunate in the sense that their development started much later than in the Inner Islands, therefore we were able to learn from the mistakes of the Inner Islands and focus our tourism model on an environmentally-friendly development.
The IDC, therefore, launched a “one island, one hotel” policy simply because we want to retain the character of each and every island and try and keep it as selective as possible. With such policy, the footprint of the hotels on the Outer Islands is much smaller. For instance, for an island of 600 acres like Desroches, we only allow 40-room hotels so that we maintain a very low-key type development of very upmarket-type operations: five-star-plus brands. We believe this is the most beneficial model for the environmental development and protection of that island, while also contributing to its economic development; the two must work in a very symbiotic way.
Because of this model, the tourism development on the Outer Islands is quite unique. But unfortunately, it also means that it is expensive because you have far fewer rooms to carry the overhead costs of operation.
You have managed to implement a successful model, but what has been your strategy since the inception of the IDC to attract investments to the Outer Islands?
In order to promote the tourism development on the Outer Islands, we have worked on the necessary infrastructures which entail airfield, water, electricity generation, proper sewage facilities, transport facilities and shipping facilities to the islands. With the basic infrastructure in place, we have opened the door to the private sector to come in and develop the hotel infrastructure and overall development.
At the very beginning of our mandate, there were no takers simply because there were so many potential sites and untouched beaches in the Inner Islands. Since investors had no interest in investing further away, where the operating cost would be higher, we started building two small hotels ourselves, one on Silhouette and one on Desroches, to demonstrate that they had something quite different to offer. And true enough, within a couple of years of having opened these hotels, the international tourism trade fairs that featured those products suddenly became interested and, very soon, these hotels became very successful. We sold them off to the private sector and reinvested in these islands. Interestingly, each time there has been a change of ownership of those hotels we have found that the operator has gotten better. Today we have the likes of the Hiltons and the Four Seasons operating in the Outer Islands with a barefoot-luxury-type of operation since there you have total peace and tranquility, no cars, no trucks, no airplanes coming in and out all day long, an environment which is unspoiled, places where you can interact very close with the environment.
As a consequence, the activities that we allow on the Outer Islands are very sustainable. For example, any form of fishing is of a catch-and-release nature; the main tool that tourists use on these outer islands is a camera and that is about as far as it goes. There are not many places in the world where you have such pristine environment and such low footprint.
As your mandate is to develop the Outer Islands in a sustainable manner, which services do you provide and how are they sustainably implemented?
We built airfields as efficiently and environmentally-friendly as possible because you need to have that air link since people do get sick and they need to be brought in and out. We built airstrips on most of the Outer Islands. There is still a couple more to go, but most of them now have the luxury of being able to be flown in and out when required.
The next step was the provision of energy, which traditionally we did by producing electricity from diesel fuel and now, of course, we are moving to the combination of this energy produced from fuels with energy also produced from solar panels in a pretty big way. This is taking place right now, and we expect that over the next 10 years most of the energy on the Outer Islands will be renewable energy of some kind. We provide that facility and that service.
Then, of course, wherever you have human beings you have waste that has to be managed very efficiently, especially in a small confined environment. The waste that can be biodegradable is dealt with on the islands, some waste is incinerated and some waste comes back to Mahe for its processing such as steel scraps and glass because we do not have landfills on the islands; we do not allow such things.
The next thing that is important is potable water. Now, these islands are all Coraline islands, so you do not have rivers and mountains to stock water. We basically produce all our water from desalination. And there again, the process of desalination we use doesn’t entail the mixing of harmful chemicals that pollute the environment. Moreover, all the sewage on the islands gets treated and the outflow gets treated to a point where it is sterilized and it is reused for irrigation.
We also provide human services to the hotels for the maintenance of the infrastructure, the buildings and the gardens. We also do produce some food on the Outer Islands, especially leafy vegetables which are consumed by the hotels; if we can produce efficiently and economically on the islands, we make an effort to do so.
Moreover, IDC is careful in terms of the introduction of animals or plants to the islands so that we don’t bring in new diseases. Then there is a very big element of environmental management itself with the reintroduction of species, the creation of habitats for the existing species on the islands and the protection of the turtles -which populations have grown significantly on the Outer Islands-.
These services entail plenty of know-how, experienced human resources, and technological innovation. How have you collaborated with international companies in order to develop the islands and train your employees?
We are always on the lookout of what is new, especially in terms of renewable energy, waste disposal, and waste management. We have 40 years of experience in that field and we do keep abreast with the latest techniques and methodologies. It is getting easier now because everyone is becoming environmentally conscious.
We, therefore, try to bring in what is most applicable in an island. It does not necessarily mean that what works on one island will work in another. You have climate differences since some islands are in the cyclone belt and require different building methods, and some islands have plenty of vegetation and others don’t. We, therefore, stay in touch with our ministries which provide us with information from international organizations that work in those areas, and we also work with environmental NGOs that are usually up-to-date on the latest methods, systems, and procedures.
You have announced that part of the Platte Island has been leased for the construction of a luxury hotel commencing in 2018. Can you elaborate on that development and other investments in the pipeline?
It is a small establishment of 55 rooms because the maximum allowable on Platte is 60 rooms. Desroches Island is also 60 rooms, although right now there are only 40 rooms being built. Alphonse is also 60 rooms but they only have about 30 rooms operating now.
What are the other criteria, aside from the number of rooms, that investors need to meet in order to develop tourism infrastructure on the Outer Islands?
It is not only the size of the number of rooms but also the size of the staff because every staff is a person living on that island. We, therefore, have to be provided with proof that the staffing ratio does not go beyond acceptable limits.
In terms of infrastructure, investors have to submit an infrastructure plan that we scrutinize, such as the closeness to the beach, the spacing between one bungalow and another since we don’t allow blocks of rooms. We also don’t allow the use of certain types of lights on the islands because it affects the turtles. We will not allow, for example, GSM roaming mobiles on the Outer Islands. You have got Internet facilities in your room but it stays within those parameters.
Overall, there is no fixed checklist because the islands vary significantly between one another; sometimes what could be applicable to one may not necessarily be applicable to another. So, we are very flexible but tend to strive for projects that would cohabitate with the environment.
There is a very important aspect of any development that takes place in the Outer Islands: the commercial activity of any form or kind must contribute to the environment. For example, the tourism guests that go to the island contribute to an environmental trust fund. Each island has an environmental trust, and the dividends of those are then used to run scientific programs in the islands and then to rehabilitate the island where there has been environmental damage.
Being such an important institution, in which other ways do you contribute to the nation and the Seychellois?
The Outer Islands represent half of our territory in terms of landmass. Our facilities can provide assistance to the coast guard and different authorities in times of need; one good example is in relation to piracy. We offer support in terms of the refueling of planes and boats, and the provision of shelter during patrols.
The cost effectiveness of patrolling in the Southwestern sector of Seychelles is more viable when done from an outer island than from Mahe. Hence, we play a very important role there in the case of piracy. We play a very important role in providing support and facilities to the authorities in the fight of the movement of drugs in the Indian Ocean. More recently, we have assisted in the setting up of radar stations on the Outer Islands which monitor boat movements, contributing to the combating of piracy and drug trafficking.
And then, of course, there is another very important aspect of being able to provide support and facilities, which is search-and-rescue. There is a lot of traffic in the Southwest Indian Ocean in terms of private vessels, tourism vessels, and maritime shipping.
There are plans to improve the infrastructure on some of the Outer Islands to be able to provide support to the different governmental goals. One that comes to mind is the management of fisheries. I believe the Outer Islands probably have a bigger role to play in the blue economy than the Inner Islands, simply because 70% of the EEZ is around the Outer Islands .
As mentioned, eBiz guides Seychelles has been endorsed by the government to be its communication tool and increase information and transparency about the government and the business community here. How do you align your communication strategies with the governments strive for transparency?
IDC is a publicly owned company but the organization itself is registered under the Companies Act. Now, under the Companies Act, you have to comply with a number of reporting procedures, which IDC does from Day 1.
Moreover, the company has a board of directors and the directors get appointed by the government. It is the government who decides and rotates the board members regularly. Hence the board has a day-to-day responsibility of ensuring that the policy of the company safeguards its financial viability. The company has board meetings every two months, and investments beyond a certain amount must be approved by it.
Now, IDC not only complies with the Companies Act laws, regulations and requirements, but we also make monthly submissions to the Public Monitoring Commission. In fact, we always get praised for being the first ones to comply on a monthly basis.
Over the last few years, there has been an outcry about the government not communicating with the population. Now, as a company operating commercially, it is not necessarily in our best interest to tell our competitors what we are doing because these are private investments, and we have a certain duty to ensure that they operate on an equal footing to anybody else.
Furthermore, more recently we were one of the first ones to invite members of the assembly to visit the islands and see for themselves what is happening. There is a special committee which was set up to monitor and report, and they are very pleased and impressed with what we are doing, but the same cannot be said about what is happening on private islands.
They have suddenly realized that we have nothing to hide and that our development strategy –quite opposite to the “Affordable Seychelles” plan- has been successful especially when compared to those on the Inner Islands.
In general, I believe everybody has now realized that it is not that we did not want people to go and develop on the islands. What we simply were saying is that there is only so much that you can build if you want it to be on a sustainable basis. Perhaps we should have tried to get that message across more publicly in the past, but now it has certainly filtered through. I believe the cause is being defended.