In the context of this year’s Heritage theme-Cultural Heritage and Sustainable Tourism, TONY MATHIOT, on behalf of the National Heritage Research Section, ponders over the importance that our Heritage will continue to have in our Tourism Industry.
It’s okay for you to have tourism development. It’s good for your economy, you need it. But you should never ever have to sacrifice any aspects of your heritage for the sake of tourism. You’d be committing a blunder you will never be able to regret. Being the small tropical island nation that you are, your tourism industry and your cultural heritage should enjoy a symbiotic relationship that generates revenue for your economic prosperity.
We are at the National Archives, precisely at my desk in the Research Room. My interlocutor is British Professor Emeritus of Economics at Oxford University, Jonathan Whitely-Scrow is seventy-five years old and has visited the Seychelles “fifteen times, twice in 1981 when I cancelled my trip to Sri Lanka.” He is not what you can call a globetrotter but he’s been to quite a few interesting places. He’s seen the ruins of Peru, the Hill Forts of Rajasthan, the temples of Thailand, the Great Mosque of Cordoba, and the pyramids of Egypt. He has see some of our centenarian Colonial plantation houses (have you ever seen any of them?) He was especially awed by the magnificent timber edifice of the Jumeau family at Anse la Mouche (you will never see it!) Well, that was way back in the late 1960’s when he arrived in Port Victoria on one of those ships of the British India Line.
“Karanja I think it was called”. He tells me “I stayed in a bungalow at Beau Vallon. For the first time in Seychelles, I stayed on your island for almost two months”. He had come to report on the tea industry that was being established at Sans Soucis by a Kenya company. I inform him that Seychelles exported its first consignment of 10,000lbs of tea to South Africa on 8th September of 1970.
After talking about various issues (yes, including Brexit!), our discussion has finally come to the subject of our cultural heritage. More precisely, the detrimental consequences that our tourism industry have had or could have on our cultural heritage. Well, in the candid sanctuary of my own judgement, I firmly maintain that if during the last forty-six years tourism has definitely taken its toll on the natural beauty of our islands, the cultural heritage of our nation has never been at stake and has never had to be compromised. As a matter of fact, since 1971, when the first Airline passengers alighted from the BOAC super VC10, our cultural heritage was considered a valuable asset for our then incipient tourism industry. It’s true, the first brochures placed emphasis on the tropical resplendence of our granitic islands “ a thousand miles from anywhere” It was a potential source of revenue that didn’t need to be hyperbolized. After all, how can you make a refinement of such tropical charms like ours?!
Once they arrived on our shores, our tourists of the 70’s must certainly have been awe-struck while judging the descriptions in the brochures to utterly deficient! They must have been enchanted by everything and more!… From the scorching panadol –white beaches with booming surfs, majestic granite coastlands, the greenery of forested mountains to creole dwellings of timber with pitched roof and dormer windows, ox-operated coconut-oil mills, fishermen carrying bamboo poles suspended with packets of fish secured with screwpine rope and barefoot girls skipping rope. What tropical Idyll! All this were captured on Kodak. They bought artisanal works from the Home Industries craft shop (established since 1938) to bring back home as souvenirs. During their holidays, those tourists must have savoured and appreciated many aspects of our creole tradition, our intangible heritage, precious legacy of our ancestors that our contemporary tourists are, alas, not so lucky to experience, Why? Well, since the construction of our International Airport at Pointe Larue which opened in 1971 and the creation of a modern port to cater for increasing maritime traffic, Seychelles has been in the throes of development – vast and unrelenting development which have created circumstances that offer no alternative but to comply to the dictates of modernisation, practically in all aspects of our twenty-first century life.
Indeed, our growing population has been the appreciative recipient of technological innovations, fashion and western influence. Social and economic progress has made these inevitable and unresistable. Consequently, we had to dispense with some “time immemorial” aspects of our creole tradition but at no detriment to our National identity.
Every week, hundreds of tourists from Europe and Asia arrive in Seychelles to discover a cosmopolitan brew of races with a distinctive social culture and tradition. It’s been over a decade now, since, the Wednesday ‘Bazaar Labrin’ activity was launched at Beau Vallon, the most touristic district on Mahe. This weekly nocturnal event affords our visitors an opportunity to, at least, have an inkling of our creole culture, in particular our creole gastronomy. Doesn’t this attest our intention to exploit our cultural heritage for the appreciation of our visitors? Every country which puts a premium on its tourism industry cannot neglect the pivotal role that its cultural heritage has to play in maintaining the influx of tourists. Look at Egypt. Its pyramids and archaeological sites are indispensible sources of revenue. Look at India. Look at Moscow and China. These are places where history and culture reign supreme in those countries’ tourism Industries.
The exponential growth of our tourism industry has necessitated the construction of more accommodation establishments on Mahe, Praslin, La Digue and on inner lying islands. For a while now, it has become an issue of argument whether the constant addition of more tourist infrastructures might have a detrimental impact on the unique splendour of island. Mind you, didn’t we make a vow back in the early 80’s that at all costs, we would never allow Seychelles to become like the Cote D’Azur? That was then? This is now? Or aren’t we giving credence to one of our most popular creole sayings which states that “lapeti i vinn an manzan” (appetite grows with eating)?!
“It’s easy to let things get out of hands, you know” Jonathan says ”It’s like gambling in the Casino. The more you win, the more you want to play, and the more you raise your bets” It was a year after our National Airline ‘ Air Seychelles’ was launched that the Government introduced legislation to protect our buildings and sites of historical value. It must have been a noble gesture of patriotism in hopeful anticipation of massive development to come. Act 19 of 1980 (National Monuments Act) give legal protection to the, admittedly, paucity of our oldest buildings which includes the old Supreme Court building (1887) that has been converted into the National History Museum and the first Government Secretariat (1903) which is now the Mayor’s Office.
The following year, Act 15 of 1981 (Seychelles Tourist Board Act) established the first Tourist Board “with responsibility for promoting and developing tourism to and in Seychelles”. This was definitely an act of optimistic premonition. In 1983, when Air Seychelles went international, visitor arrivals shot up to 55,867 – on astounding increase of almost 9,000 more visitors that the previous year (47,280. During the following years the figures kept increasing (1984 – 63,417, 1985 – 72,542…..)
But we could never have foreseen, back then, that come the second decade of the 21st century, new markets would emerge for tourist industry to contend with. Among the 89,259 visitors that have arrived in Seychelles up to now, (10th April 2017) 6,946 were Arabs, 5,236 were Russian and 4,751 were Chinese.
‘These folks don’t come all the way here just for a swim and a tan’ The old professor assures me humorously. ‘They look forward to visiting museums, cultural site and exploring nature trails’.
And we do have these ‘other’ offerings for our visitors. Although not on the lavish scale that we had once upon a time. Like when the adventurous English Lady painter, Marianne North 1830 – 1890) experienced when she came in 1882. There were not less than three different designs and shapes of fish traps or when the French pioneer diver, Jacques Yves Cousteau (1910 – 1991) came in his calypso in 1959.
Turtles were being slaughtered and sold at the Victoria Market. Most households used firewood for cooking and our fishermen went out to sea in Pirogues made of Takamaka timber.
Today, it has become more urgent than ever for us to bear in mind, that despite whatever concessions we are obliged to make to any form of modernisation, as we may call it, we must never discard our cultural heritage.
Professor Jonathan Whitley Scrow agrees whole heartedly.
“This applies to every single small island state for which tourism is a main source of revenue” He replies, as he begins to show me snapshots of his first holiday in Seychelles.