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Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 September 2007, 11:56 GMT 12:56 UK
Sustaining beauty in Mauritius
Mauritius has been named sub-Saharan Africa's best-governed nation, but Jonny Hogg discovers it is not all paradise on the Indian Ocean island.

Flic et Flac beach Mauritius
Tourists are drawn to the unspoiled natural beauty of Mauritius

"We got married on Sunday and we decided on Mauritius because it really is the ultimate honeymoon destination."

Victoria, like many tourists, has come to Mauritius for the holiday of a lifetime.

The alluring combination of perfect white beaches, hot sun and famously good service attracted over 900,000 visitors to this small Indian Ocean island last year.

"We come here every year," one South African couple said as they enjoyed the soft sand and tropical blue sea in the north of the country.

"It is really magical."

Development v sustainability

Mauritius enjoys clear economic benefits from tourism and many hotels take advantage of September being the low season to renovate and expand in preparation for the Christmas boom.

Underneath the veneer of success and economic growth, however, all may not be well on this paradise island.

Without the environment we won't have any tourism
Ian Watt

The Mauritian government is planning to expand the tourist trade to two million people a year in the next decade, a huge number of visitors, given the island's resident population of just 1.3 million.

For environmental consultant Iain Watt, who has lived on the island for ten years, this raises some major concerns.

"If you put more and more hotels along the beaches then of course that is going to have an environmental impact."

"Eventually there will come a time where the beaches have become so degraded that people will not want to come here because the product you are offering has lost its value."

Erosion risk

Most of the tourists I have spoken to in Mauritius say they are here to enjoy the island's stunning beaches.

Cranes behind Mauritian beach hotels
Development threatens the island's natural beauty

But with ever-increasing tourism, over-fishing and intensive sugar cane farming, is there a real danger that the beaches may disappear altogether?

"The major problem is that laws are not being enforced," says Iain Watt.

"In point of fact, Mauritius has some excellent legislation covering sustainability and environmental impacts but people are not obeying the laws."

Balaclava, one of the most popular tourist areas, illustrates Iain's concerns.

Turtle Bay is supposed to be one of the island's two protected marine parks.

At one end of the beach however, the run-off water from a construction site is flowing straight into the sea, turning the water a dirty grey colour.

Omi Adjodah runs a dive centre in Turtle Bay and is entirely dependant on the tourist industry for his business.

He shares Iain's concerns that all is not well.

"Unfortunately in the last five years I have personally witnessed a deterioration in the marine aspects and also in the beaches as well"

As he stands in the middle of Turtle Bay, behind him two new hotels are under construction and a mechanical digger is trundling up and down the beach.

Saving the reefs

Mauritius is surrounded by coral reefs which protect its stunning beaches.

In 2005 Thomas Goreau of the Global Coral Reef Alliance reported that these reefs were in "generally poor condition."

Mauritius
Speedboats damage the reefs leading to erosion of the beaches

Omi agrees: "People out fishing walk on the coral reef. We know the speed boats sometimes touch the reef and also some of the hotels clear paths through the reef so that their clients have access to the sea."

"But if the coral reefs go then the protection for the beaches will go. If the beaches disappear, hotels will find it very hard to get customers."

This is of direct concern for Omi, because he relies on visitors coming to the hotels for his livelihood.

"Many of my customers are disappointed with the diving here in Mauritius. As a diver I know that if things carry on as they are I'm going to be out of a job in ten years time."

Green issues

Omi says people, including the government, are not taking the environment seriously.

Iain Watt agrees, saying that hoteliers, when it comes to protecting their beaches, are "burying their head in the sand".

Marcel Noe is an advisor for the Minister of Tourism. He denies that people are ignoring the problem.

"We are very conscious of the environment because we know without the environment we won't have any tourism and that's why there are many projects going on, for example all the hotels have to recycle their water."

It is not just tourism that is putting a strain on the country's environment. Intensive sugar cane farming has seen the destruction of virtually all of the natural forest and the subsequent soil erosion is causing major sedimentation problems on the coast.

There are also concerns that untreated commercial and domestic waste is finding its way into the ocean.

However, Iain Watt remains cautiously optimistic that a solution can be found.

"This thing could end in one of two ways. Either people get a grip, attitudes change and laws are enforced. Then the economy really can benefit."

"On the other hand if it continues unregulated then the island won't be able to support the tourist boom."

Marcel Noe acknowledges there are problems but he believes that tourism is regulated.

"There are always going to be challenges, but there is a great awareness that we need to keep our environment pristine."

As Omy stands on the beach in Turtle Bay - still beautiful in spite of the construction projects - he ponders the challenges ahead: "We need to change people's thinking. Otherwise this beach we're standing on won't be here in 30 years time."

SEE ALSO
Country profile: Mauritius
21 May 07 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Mauritius
21 May 07 |  Country profiles
Sugar producers see crisis ahead
24 Nov 05 |  Business

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