(CNN) – Just over a year ago, the prospect of the Seychelles experiencing a dramatic drop in travelers seemed almost inconceivable.
Revered for its beautiful beaches and jungle landscapes, the Indian Ocean archipelago was emerging as one of the most attractive destinations in the world, and its popularity was only growing.
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The number of arrivals increased by 4% and tourism officials were preparing for what seemed destined to be another 12 months of great success.
But of course, the Covid-19 pandemic put an end to almost all plans or predictions made for 2020 and the world as we knew it has irreversibly changed.
Like so many destinations that rely heavily on the income of international visitors, the Seychelles, which is located 1,600 kilometers off the coast of Tanzania, were hit hard by the coronavirus.
According to the Seychelles Tourism Board, tourist arrivals were down 70% last year and the sector’s revenue in 2020 was down by around $ 368 million.
“The country has almost stopped in terms of tourism activities,” Sylvestre Radegonde, Seychelles’ minister of foreign affairs and tourism, told CNN Travel.
“And since our economy revolves a lot around tourism, it means that other activities also slowed down.
“Everything from fishing to agriculture to arts and crafts to restaurants and bars. So we started the year in really bad shape.”
However, officials have gone to great lengths to ensure that travelers can return quickly and, more importantly, safely.
Starting Thursday (March 25), Seychelles will lift restrictions for all visitors except those traveling from South Africa.
Although arriving individuals are required to submit a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours of departure, travelers are no longer subject to any quarantine requirements or movement restrictions during their visit.
“More than 300 passengers flew in this morning, which is the most we have seen in a day for a long, long time,” Radegonde said just hours after the restrictions were lifted.
“So far our weekly numbers have been around 200, so getting a plane full of passengers is great.”
Another 100 or so travelers were due to fly later Thursday, with the nation expecting hundreds more in the coming days.
‘Aggressive’ reopening strategy
Seychelles will open its borders to international visitors, excluding travelers from South Africa, starting March 25.
The move comes toward the end of an “aggressive” vaccination program that aims to fully vaccinate at least 70% of the Seychelles’ estimated population of 98,000.
Officials launched the plan after receiving a donation of approximately 50,000 doses of vaccines from the UAE government.
“More than 90% of our population has received the first dose of the vaccine and more than 45% have already received the second dose,” explains Radegonde.
“We hope to have reached our goal in the next few weeks, or certainly in the course of April.”
But the Seychelles tourism team is encouraged by the number of bookings received so far and believes that now is the right time to invite travelers to return.
“We feel comfortable that we have achieved the immunity we deserve,” says Radegonde. “We have trained the establishments. We have the facilities in place.
“The health facilities are there and the measures we have implemented are working. We feel comfortable that we have achieved the immunity we deserve. So we feel comfortable reopening.”
Of course, reopening while much of the world is still dealing with the virus will not be without its challenges.
When the Maldives unconditionally reopened in July 2020, it became an even more attractive option for travelers, especially as rival destinations such as Tahiti, Bali and Phuket remained closed to international travelers.
However, officials were forced to tighten the restrictions again a few months later, requiring all travelers to show proof of a negative Covid-19 test upon arriving in the Maldives starting in September.
Road to recovery
The popular destination’s tourism revenue declined by 62% in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
While allowing international travelers to enter regardless of their vaccination status is an important step in the right direction, the current travel ban in the United Kingdom, one of the Seychelles’ largest European markets, remains an obstacle.
“Unfortunately, there are still restrictions in quite a few of our traditional source markets and citizens cannot travel,” says Sherin Francis, executive director of the Seychelles Tourism Board.
According to Francis, many of the travelers arriving in Seychelles now are from places like Russia, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, India, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates.
“These are not markets that we normally depend on for tourist arrivals, but we have found that no market is insignificant.”
As is the case in most of the world, visitors should wear face masks, maintain social distancing rules, and sanitize their hands regularly.
However, Francis emphasizes that the Seychelles vacation experience remains unmatched, regardless of the restrictions.
“There are very few destinations that are currently open to tourism with simple and direct entry measures,” he says.
Travelers to the Seychelles are no longer subject to quarantine requirements or movement restrictions.
“And just like our motto goes, we really are ‘another world. I don’t think there is another destination that can provide this kind of experience.
“The nature, the slow pace of life, the lush green vegetation, the beautiful beaches. Warm temperatures all year round.
“All of this together makes the Seychelles a magical place to be, especially during a time when people are looking for outdoor activities, nature and fresh air.”
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While getting its tourism industry back on track is a high priority for the nation, keeping both visitors and residents safe remains a top concern.
“Safety has always been a very strong PVU for us,” says Francis.
As a result, the new measures must be continually reviewed to ensure that “the health and safety of visitors and the local population are not compromised.”
“Our health officials have been involved in everything we have done,” adds Radegonde. “We would not have made the decisions we did without your blessing.
“We are sure that the measures we have put in place are strict enough. Of course, this is a fluid situation, no one knows exactly where Covid is headed.
“Hear about different variants every day. So if there are changes, we will adapt our protocol accordingly. It will never be 100% foolproof. People will still be infected, no question about that.
“But in terms of the measures we have implemented, we are confident that we will not only protect our population, but also our visitors.”