(CNN) — Just over a year ago, the prospect of the Seychelles experiencing a dramatic drop in travelers seemed near inconceivable.
Revered for its beautiful beaches and jungle landscapes, the Indian Ocean archipelago was riding high as one of the world’s most alluring destinations, and its popularity was only growing.
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Arrivals numbers were up 4%, and tourism officials were bracing themselves for what seemed destined to be another hugely successful 12 months.
But of course, the Covid-19 pandemic put paid to almost every plan or prediction made for 2020 and the world as we knew it has changed irreversibly.
Like so many destinations that are highly reliant on revenue from international visitors, the Seychelles, which is situated 1,600 kilometers off the coast of Tanzania, was dealt a huge blow by coronavirus.
According to the Seychelles Tourism Board, tourist arrivals were down by 70% last year and the sector’s 2020 revenues dropped by around $368 million.
“The country had almost ground to a halt in terms of tourism activities,” Sylvestre Radegonde, minister of foreign affairs and tourism for the Seychelles, tells CNN Travel.
“And as our economy revolves a lot around tourism, it means that other activities also slowed down.
“Everything from fishing, to farming, arts and crafts, restaurants and bars. So we started the year in a really bad state.”
However, officials have pulled out all the stops to ensure that travelers can return quickly and, more importantly, safely.
From Thursday (March 25,) the Seychelles is lifting restrictions for all visitors, other than those traveling from South Africa.
Although incoming arrivals are required to present a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours prior to their departure, travelers are no longer subject to any quarantine requirements or movement restrictions during their visit.
“Over 300 passengers flew in this morning, which is the biggest number we’ve seen in a day for a long, long time,” Radegonde said just hours after restrictions were lifted.
“Up to now, our weekly figures have been around 200, so getting a plane full of passengers is great.”
Another 100 or so travelers were due to fly in later Thursday, and the nation is expecting hundreds more over the coming days.
‘Aggressive’ reopening strategy
The Seychelles will open its borders to international visitors, excluding travelers from South Africa, from March 25.
The move comes towards the end of an “aggressive” vaccination rollout scheme which aims to fully vaccinate at least 70% of the Seychelles’ estimated 98,000 population.
Officials put the plan into motion after receiving a donation of approximately 50,000 vaccine doses from the United Arab Emirates government.
“Over 90% of our population has received the first dose of the vaccine and over 45% have already had the second dose,” explains Radegonde.
“We hope to have reached our target in the next few weeks, or certainly within the course of April.”
But the Seychelles tourism team are encouraged by the number of bookings received so far and believe that now is the right time to invite travelers back.
“We are comfortable that we’ve achieved the immunity that we deserve,” says Radegonde. “We’ve trained the establishments. We have the facilities in place.
“The health facilities are there and the measures we have implemented are working. We are comfortable that we’ve achieved the immunity that we deserve. So we’re comfortable to reopen.”
Of course, reopening while much of the world is still grappling with the virus won’t be without its challenges.
When the Maldives reopened unconditionally in July 2020, it became an even more attractive option for travelers, particularly as rival destinations like Tahiti, Bali and Phuket remained closed to international travelers.
However, officials were forced to tighten up restrictions again a few months later, requiring all travelers to show proof of a negative Covid-19 test upon arrival in the Maldives from September.
Path to recovery
The popular destination’s revenues from tourism decreased by 62% in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Although allowing international travelers to enter regardless of their vaccination status is a major step in the right direction, the current ban on travel in the UK, one of the Seychelles biggest European markets, continues to be a hurdle.
“Unfortunately there are still restrictions in quite a few of our traditional source markets and the citizens cannot travel,” says Sherin Francis, chief executive officer of the Seychelles Tourism Board.
According to Francis, many of the travelers arriving in the Seychelles now are from places such as Russia, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, India, Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
“These are not markets we would usually depend on for tourism arrivals, but we’ve realized that no market is insignificant.”
As is the case throughout most of the world, visitors are required to wear face masks, maintain social distancing rules and sanitize their hands regularly.
However, Francis stresses that the experience of holidaying in the Seychelles remains unparalleled regardless of any restrictions.
“There are very few destinations that are currently open to tourism with simple straightforward entry measures,” she says.
Travelers to the Seychelles are no longer subject to any quarantine requirements or movement restrictions.
“And just like our slogan says, we really are ‘another world. I don’t think there’s another destination that can provide this kind of experience.
“The nature, the slow pace of life, the green lush vegetation, the beautiful beaches. Warm temperatures all year round.
“All of this together truly makes the Seychelles a magical place to be, especially during a time when people are looking for outdoor activities, for nature and for fresh air.”
Near the equator, Bird Island is one of the most unique of Seychelles’ 115 islands. It is also home to a very special character, whose presence makes you feel like you’ve traveled back in time.
About 535 hotel establishments in the Seychelles have received the appropriate training and are licensed to received international travelers at this point in time.
While getting its tourism industry back on track is a huge priority for the nation, keeping both visitors and residents safe remains of paramount concern.
“Safety has always been a very strong USP for us,” says Francis.
As a result, the new measures are to be reviewed continuously to ensure that “the health and safety of the visitors and the local population are not compromised.”
“Our health officials have been involved in everything that we’ve done,” adds Radegonde. “We wouldn’t have made the decisions that we’ve made without their blessing.
“We’re comfortable that the measures we’ve put in place are tight enough. Of course this is a fluid situation, nobody knows exactly where Covid is going.
“You hear of different variants every day. So if there are changes, we will adapt our protocol accordingly. It’s never going to be 100% fool proof. People are still going to be infected, there’s no doubt about that.
“But in terms of the measures that we’ve put in place, we are confident that, not only will we be protecting our population, but also our visitors.”