DUBAI: Watching the sun set over the ocean from a busy restaurant, listening to a soundtrack of excited chatter in several different languages as translucent waters lap at a white sand beach below… a holiday in the Seychelles in 2021 seems no different than it ever was.
The only reminders of the COVID-19 pandemic are the face masks folded on the tables next to drinks, and the hand sanitizer replacing salt and pepper shakers.
Because tourism has returned here in full force. Since the island archipelago reopened on March 25, travellers — currently mostly Arab and eastern European rather than German and British due to current lockdowns — have arrived in droves. Hotel operators report occupancy levels rocketing from around 20 percent to 90 percent in a week.
Now welcoming around 500 visitors per day, the nation is seeing a glimmer of hope after a tough year that battered its tourism-reliant economy. Even now, during a surge in COVID cases despite operating one of the world’s fastest vaccination campaigns, tourism authorities are insisting the Seychelles is a safe place to vacation. While the Ministry of Health has said about one third of the positive cases are among people who are fully vaccinated, most are those who have received only one dose of the vaccine or none at all.
Which is why safety has become paramount here. Masks are worn even outdoors by the Seychellois and social distancing is strictly enforced.
Security patrols roam the beaches, restaurants and hotels on the nation’s three main islands — Mahe, Praslin and La Digue — ensuring the rules are followed at all times. A new COVID-hotel certification has approved 500 of the country’s 700 hotels to operate. But despite the rapid return of tourism, isolation isn’t hard to find.
On Mahe, the most populous of the country’s 115 islands, seclusion is found in the south. The Four Seasons Resort Seychelles, for instance, is a welcoming fortress — the private-access road winding through thick foliage until you reach the property’s 67 villas spread across an expansive 180-hectare bay atop the picturesque Petite Anse beach.
Privacy abounds here, and despite it now almost running at full capacity, the site is so vast it never seems crowded. Sun loungers by the beach are socially distant, and given that each of the villas has its own private pool, it’s become a popular choice for safety-conscious travellers. On-site restaurants Kannel and Zez offer some of the best food on Mahe, so there’s really no reason to ever leave the enclave.
But the real draw of a trip to the Seychelles is a spot of island-hopping, and the country’s private islands have been quick to position themselves as the ultimate COVID-friendly place to holiday.
If you’re willing to splurge, head for Six Senses Zil Pasyon, located on the private Felicite Island. The traditional-style, ocean-front villas are roomy and come with their own private pools and huge outdoor deck, perfect for social distancing. The spa, which Six Senses is famous for, is back in operation too — and is the best place to spend a rainy afternoon indoors.
The waters around Felicite are protected, so the snorkeling here is excellent, and short walks around the island lead you to isoloated white-sand beaches which you’ll likely be alone to enjoy.
But if it’s rugged nature and proper hiking you’re looking for, head straight for Silhouette Island. Hilton Seychelles Labriz Resort & Spa operates on one of the few flat areas of the island, which is mostly made up of towering peaks and overgrown jungle. Hikes here are something else entirely — steep climbs through native flora that deposit you at a private beach, sometimes featuring free-roaming giant Aldabra tortoises, sometimes with a coral reef prime for snorkeling. These are exclusive experiences, since the island is a protected national park and the hotel offers just 111 rooms. You’ll need to opt for a higher end ‘Sanctuary Villa’ for a private pool, but the lengthy main beach provides ample room for swimming in almost-complete isolation. The local settlement nearby, inhabited by about 30 Seychellois, means there’s a far more authentic experience to be had here, too. To spend a few days on Silhouette is to be transported to another world.
While the rest of the world tentatively reopens, and travellers venture overseas once again, the Seychelles has had a head start — and time to fine-tune a tourism industry operating in the “new normal.” So it currently offers a safety-conscious, low-key experience for travellers returning to seeing the world.