Photography Travel

How super-rich tourism may help the planet

Written by Darius Rubics

On a remote tropical island in the Indian Ocean, a man in a woman’s wig has been hiding in a bush for hours. Armed with an air rifle, he plans to kill the island’s last three surviving specimens of an exotic bird.

This, unlikely as it might appear, is the current front line in a conservation revolution.

“Normally, you see environment and development at each other’s necks,” the Seychelles tourism minister, Didier Dogley tells me. “Here we have pioneered an approach that turns it the other way round.”

The Seychelles model, as Mr Dogley calls it, claims tourist development doesn’t damage the environment, it positively improves it.

It sounds a little far-fetched. The demands of the global traveller can place a heavy footprint on the perfect white sands of a fragile eco-system like the Seychelles. For even the most responsible tour operator, it is usually a question of mitigating the damage.

The seeds of the idea washed up on a number of Seychelles islands in the 1990s, notably North Island, bought by the ecotourism pioneers Wilderness Safaris in 1997.

The company had strong green credentials having established safaris across southern Africa that diverted tourist revenues to help save dozens of critically endangered species and fund conservation projects.

Now their attention had shifted to one granite dot in the island group.

North Island was a mess. It had been abandoned as a coconut plantation. Rats had killed off the wedge-tailed shearwater and the white-tailed tropicbird, seabirds that had nested there in vast numbers.

Once the home to thousands of giant tortoises, now just three remained. Invasive flora and fauna had crowded out the natives, including rare endemic species, found only in Seychelles.

Wilderness decided to restore the island to its former natural glory and get super-rich tourists to pay for it.

It was an audacious plan. Eleven exclusive luxury villas, each costing guests several thousand euros a night, were hidden among the Takamaka trees and coconut palms along the white sand beaches.

The hope was that the world’s wealthiest would be wooed by a unique feel-good factor: fabulous luxury, total privacy and the quiet satisfaction of doing something positive for the planet.

Rumour has it that the Clooneys have been guests at least once. The Beckhams are said to have stayed. We do know the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge spent their honeymoon on North Island.

“Instead of building a hotel and then beautifying the place with exotic things, the hoteliers and investors in small islands like North Island have twisted the whole thing around,” Mr Dogley says.

“They remove the exotics and bring in the endemics and natives, making that the attraction for the tourists that stay on the island. I think this is an incredible model.”

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About the author

Darius Rubics