“I watch the reactions of people next to me on the plane when I fly into the Seychelles, and it is always the same: ‘I knew it was green, but I didn’t expect it to be this green!’,” says Sherin Naikin, CEO of the Seychelles Tourism Board. The idyllic 115-island Indian Ocean archipelago is her home, and it is her job to make sure that it thrives, while simultaneously maintaining its natural allure.

As is to be expected of an island this beautiful, the Seychelles’ biggest sector is tourism. The country of only 90,000 residents welcomed 237,000 tourists in 2014, 66% of which were from Europe. The economy, by extension, is largely based on tourism-related industries – hotels, cruises, restaurants and marinas. The country's president, James Michel, recently began promoting the Seychelles’ 'blue economy', a concept encompassing everything from cruise liners to fisheries and aquaculture – which makes sense, as the second pillar of the country’s economy is tuna fishing.

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Hidden talent

Ms Naiken, formerly the head of the Seychelles’ foreign investment promotion agency, says of the country's industrial diversity: “Very few people realise that in the Seychelles we have an established financial services sector, where for further growth we need more banking facilities, insurance, private funds, hedge funds, and so on. to support it.” The country’s first stock exchange was opened two years ago.

“The reason we are talking about growth in this sector is that we are promoting ourselves as a stepping stone into Africa. More and more people are looking to invest into Africa, and we see ourselves as the perfect gateway,” says Ms Naiken. As part of two major trading blocs – the Common Market for Eastern and the Southern Africa and Southern African Development Community – the Seychelles already has the market: businesses established in the Seychelles have access to preferential tariffs and are not subject to double taxation.

“Doing business in the Seychelles means doing business with any country in Africa,” says Ms Naiken. The Seychelles also markets itself as a perfect corporate office location – in terms of facilities and quality of life, it is a desirable place to settle, independently or with a family.

Additionally, all of the Seychelles is a potential free zone. Due to its limited land space, businesses exporting 80% or more of production can apply for free-zone status anywhere in the country, giving them valuable access to the fast-growing African market.

South Africa is a key investor in the Seychelles, currently carrying out its Eden Island project, launched in 2005, which involves hotel development, a marina expansion, the building of a shopping complex and restaurants, and which is estimated to create 1400 jobs and boost both tourism and retail. Other leading investors in the country include China, Russia and the United Arab Emirates.

IT edge

The country suffered a setback in 2011 when its national airline, Air Seychelles, underwent restructuring in a Gulf-based merger and stopped flying to Europe. UK airline British Airways simultaneously cut Seychelles from its destinations, stemming direct access between the country and its number one tourism market.   

This put the country at a disadvantage with respect to its competition – the Maldives and Mauritius maintained direct access to Europe – but the Seychelles has taken it as an opportunity to diversify and expand into new tourism markets. India, South Africa and the Middle East are nearby markets with huge potential in terms of yield, and Chinese tourism is also growing rapidly. 

“It is a plus for us in terms of diversifying our strategy, going into emerging markets,” says Ms Naiken. “The emerging markets are helping keep us on the path of growth.”

Crucially, the Seychelles boasts of a strong IT infrastructure, enabling connection to anywhere in the world. The country also capitalises on its favourable geographical location. “Our timezone is ideal to connect with Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas; we’re right in the centre of the world. For businesses spanning across Asia and Africa, it’s the right place to be located,” says Ms Naiken.      

Employment in the Seychelles' IT sector is increasing. In addition to offering a range of IT courses at the University of Seychelles, the country’s educational curriculum requires all children to be IT literate. “The human advantage is that we have one of the highest literacy levels in Africa, which is almost 100%," says Ms Naiken. "It is easy for us to build on that now that all of our students are also IT literate. We have very high market penetration in terms of computer and internet access; we are among the highest per capita in Africa.”

The Seychelles was also recently recognised as one of the top African countries for e-government services by the UN. Targets for the future include making all of the country's business services available online and becoming a destination for data centres. 

Keen on conservation

Regarding the Seychelles' growth strategy, the aim seems to be to diversify rather than increase developments on the islands – a focus on quality rather than quantity. Plans going forward involve more niche developments, such as eco resorts on the outer islands. But what sets the Seychelles apart is its staunch dedication to environmental issues. A global leader in sustainable tourism, almost 50% of the country’s total land area is under natural conservation – one of the highest such proportions in the world. Rigorous environmental legislation mandates that all tourism projects undergo a series of public reviews and consultations before gaining approval.

Prioritising conservation means that the Seychelles has had to turn down certain projects not conducive to its environmental policies. “Of course, all challenges you can turn into a potential opportunity,” says Ms Naiken. “More and more, as we get the new projects that come on board, we need to find a delicate balance between environmental conservation and project development.”

All of the Seychelles’ policies, Ms Naiken notes, are to support the tourism industry – it serves as a strength as it sets the country apart from its competitors. “Our wishes are that as we progress, yes, there needs to be economic development in the country, but we always need to preserve what makes the Seychelles what it is – our uniqueness, our environment, our friendly people, our laid-back lifestyle. We have to keep that, because that’s what sells the Seychelles,” she says.