La Reunion, the ‘tourism wild card’ in the Indian Ocean

UNWTO COMES TO REUNION TO DISCUSS THE FUTURE OF SUSTAINABLE ISLAND TOURISM

(Posted 09th September 2013)

The French Indian Ocean island of La Reunion this week will play host to the tourism leaders of small island countries from around the world, who have come to Saint Denis to discuss a host of agenda items.

More will be said in coming days about those of course, but for now let me take a preliminary look at the island itself. Air Austral is Reunion’s main link to neighbouring islands, to the African mainland and of course to several overseas destinations, led – needless to mention – by daily flights to Paris on a state of the art B777 aircraft.

I arrived from Johannesburg / South Africa yesterday evening in a modern B737-800 and the check in staff at the O. R. Tambo International Airport were spot on when they told me ‘We could upgrade you but I can give you an entire row of seats to yourself so you can stretch out’ which ultimately proved entirely right. I shall still want my upgrade to the business class on the way back to compare catering with economy but that said, the tray of goodies which came for lunch was shaming the business class fare of several airlines I have travelled with over the past year.

(Goodies goodies for lunch on Air Austral flight UU 372 from Johannesburg to Saint Denis)

Considering the new aircraft and such superior catering, the positive mood of the crew and their ever cheerful posture in the face of yours truly pulling his usual tests on them to see how alert they were and how they responded to seemingly endless questions of another hapless tourist, they broke into fits of laughter when at the end of the flight I introduced myself and told them what I was up to. Full marks for the Air Austral crew and here is the evidence of the catering served, in Economy Class.

Two types of cheese, two different rolls, the starter including a generous portion of smoked salmon, a steak as tender as to melt on my tongue and a meringue for desert along with coffee and tea. Drinks, including wines, beers, juices and soft drinks were proffered until well after lunch had ended and tea, my personal poison, was served steaming hot right up to the time the cockpit crew ordered the cabin to be cleared ready for landing.

What at that time came into view were the volcanic mountain peaks of La Reunion, an island some 2.500 km 2 large and of which some 40 percent have been turned into a UNESCO Word Heritage Site.

Landing was butter smooth on the single runway of the Roland Garros International Airport and ongoing expansion work was evidence that the infrastructure of the airport was being boosted ahead of growing visitor numbers. Visitors from countries not exempted of Visa requirements need to have a Visa to France, or a Schengen Visa SHOWING ‘and La Reunion’ an issue I surely will raise during the conference sessions and media briefings, as it makes visits by African mainland visitors most difficult of course, unlike fellow Vanilla Island Seychelles, which requires NO VISA at all. But, that said, La Reunion is not at liberty to offer a similar deal, being part of France and hence bound by Schengen regulations.

Unlike at my first visit many years ago, when it was a typical Indian Ocean island airport with lots of corrugated iron sheets, the new building is all glass and marble, which was later replicated as I was driven to my hotel across First World style highways, intersections and then roads, not one pothole in sight and traffic as disciplined as can be.

Check in at the Mercure Creolia Hotel was smooth, all ready to sign as my particulars had been religiously transmitted to the reception’s check in form, and in no time was I installed in my room.

The room, and a separate TripAdvisor review will of course as usual follow, contained all one needs for a few days stay on business and it worked out well to have brought adapters for the European type standard sockets which would otherwise have defeated our East African three pin.

As dusk settled over the city, the lights went on stretching to the horizon, where the dark suggested the Indian Ocean extended towards Africa.

(Night sky over Saint Denis / La Reunion)

The island with some very distinct and visible peaks, the highest, Piton des Neiges rising some 3.070 metres above sea level and several others, lower but just as wildly impressive, like Petit Matarum at 2.957, Grand Benare at 2.898, Piton des la Fournaise at 2.631 and Piton Maido at 2.205 offers almost untamed landscapes, canyons which seemingly have never seen the step of man on their bottom, steep escarpments not made for the faint of heart and then suddenly alleys lined by trees as in rural France, turning a corner and opening into meandering vales full of sugar cane, moving in the wind not far from those magical white beaches.

There will be much to be discovered over the next week, much to be shared and of course much to be written about the UNWTO Conference on Sustainable Tourism in Small Islands and the Vanilla Island group meeting preceding the main event.

For now is it as usual Watch This Space because there will be many tales told, images shared and the desire in my readers awakened, wanting to come here too to experience this arguably wildest – in terms of landscapes at least – island of the Indian Ocean and yet in contrast it is also so organized, but not of the German or Swiss gender but in a way so very French, and I say this as a first compliment after only one day. Baguettes, coffee, croissants and all, but now off to see more, experience more and then, what else, write more.

4 Comments

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