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Madagascar: Sustainable Tourism for Sainte Marie and Ile aux Nattes

"No future without tourism",

That is the opinion of a grocer in Sainte Marie, Madagascar. Tourism has been booming for years here on this small island off the country’s east coast. The majority of visitors to the island over the last twenty years have been backpackers. In the high season, from July to September, hump back whales cavort off the coast of Sainte Marie, temperatures are a pleasant 23°Celsius and it’s the peak tourist season for Europeans.


"We did hope that the Europeans would bring us progress and development", the villagers said to the members of the “Association Santé et Développement” (ASD), an organisation that works to integrate young people and adults in development, health promotion, economic and social activities. "Today we realise that most of our people are worse off because they are here." For the overwhelmingly poor population who face a daily struggle for survival the disad-vantages they have caused are grave and a possible threat to their very existence.



During high season from July to September, humbpack whales carvote off the coast of Sainte Marie.
The ASD members live on the resort island Sainte Marie.
ASD is involved with youth work.

Time to ask which way forwards

The development of tourism, its potential to raise living standards and the problems it brings with it were the themes for an ASD workshop at the end of 2004. Eight members of the organisation spent the day working on the theme of "Sustainable and socially acceptable tourism". They looked at the following questions: What problems does tourism bring to Sainte Marie and what are our rules for the future? Systematic group work and lively discussions revealed fears, hopes, good and bad experiences. Films on the subject stimulated further discussion and showed that other countries are facing similar problems.


The main cause of tourism-related problems was the lack of respect displayed by the Euro-peans towards the local inhabitants. The Europeans’ superiority complex and their ignorance of the locals undermine the self-awareness of the inhabitants. Sex tourism is the next prob-lem. The increasing number of tourists in search of minors as well as homosexuality cause great concern for the participants.


Earth means food. As the farmers become ashamed of their employment and easy money is a temptation, agricultural land is sold to investors. Most of the people in Sainte Marie have not learned how to handle money properly, so they fritter away their earnings and often end up destitute.


Ecological issues and public safety are at the back of the queue. Damage to the coral reef and the loss of traditional ecological knowledge, which up till now has ensured ecological stability on the tropical island, were mentioned.


"We have finally put down in words the things that have been in our minds for so long", was the locals’ comment on the results of the workshop. The organisation, that had previously been active in aids prevention work, could not, at first, agree on the next steps. There was a lack of clear understanding of the subject and also a lack of a bit of courage. Tourism is a “hot potato” in the local political scene and it’s easy to get your fingers burned.


Commitment on Ile aux Nattes - the next step

The members of ASD live on the holiday island of Sainte Marie. In September 2004 the or-ganisation’s members decided to take the next step. They had heard from the island of Ile aux Nattes, south of Sainte Marie, that there was growing conflict between foreign investors and the local population. They wanted to find out what was behind this tension.


Ile aux Nattes counts amongst the biggest tourist attractions in the region. Set in a turquoise lagoon, edged with white sand beaches and coconut palms, the island conforms exactly to the European expectations of a tropical paradise. There are no vehicles or electricity supply. Nevertheless, or perhaps because of that, Ile aux Nattes is booming. Mainly French investors have built seven hotel complexes within a short space of time. Enthused by this idyll, tourists also come in search of their own piece of paradise. One holiday home after the other has been built along the coast. Nearly all the plots of land bordering the sea have been let or sold.



No entry - typical disputes on the dream island

The beach and the adjoining 30 metres of land belong to the state, the right of use can be transferred.

While the beach and the adjoining 30 metres of land belong to the state, the right of use of this land and the coconut palms can be transferred. Leasing to Europeans, called Vazahas in Madagascan, appears to be an ideal source of income. Little attention is paid to legality and the possible disadvantages of lease agreements and traditional claims to ownership within families are often ignored.


The fishermen have to take long detours to get to their pirogues (boats) as the new owners have banned them from crossing the leased lands. Local rules do stipulate that a 30 centi-metre path has to be kept clear but nobody would dare challenge the Europeans with this African tradition. Madagascans have a completely different understanding of land owner-ship: Agreements are made where a plot of land is very often used by different people for different purposes.


"Relations with the incoming foreigners are problematic. The Vazahas are simply always right. Every single everyday event can lead to unpleasant arguments where we have to jus-tify ourselves for hours on end", declared Denis Alfred, member of a well-respected local family. “They even swear at us and maintain that we only want to take their money off them." He shakes his head and adds: "That’s just not on."



The island’s young people reject traditional patterns of behaviour. They want to be “modern” and keep up with the lifestyle of the northern hemisphere brought to the island by the media and the tourists. They don’t want to have anything to do with fishing and agriculture - in-stead they’re permanently on the look out for tourists to offer their services to. Alcohol and drug abuse are the order of the day. This alienation from their families has caused a great split in society. Islamists have recognised the potential of this generation and are systemati-cally proselytising - with some success. The gulf between young people and the rest of the overwhelmingly Catholic population is growing ever greater.


The - completely underpaid - hotel jobs are given to outsiders in preference to the islanders. You get the impression that the hotel owners want to keep their distance from the local population. They try to dissuade their guests from eating in local restaurants, claiming that they are unhygienic. A section of the islanders takes revenge for this slander by stealing from the hoteliers and owners of holiday homes. Now and again they steal from the tourists rucksacks while they’re swimming.


The project

ASD decided to organise a workshop with interested villagers which then led to a project developed in collaboration with the Ile aux Nattes local council. A Christian-orientated com-munity centre is to be established under the management of ASD and a local committee which will serve as a discussion platform and advice centre dealing with the problems and opportunities of tourism. Involving young people in the project enables them to develop a sense of perspective and redefine their role in the community. The project is supported by the village committee, the district administration and the Madagascar Ministry of Tourism.



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Île aux Nattes (also officially, but less commonly, called Nosy Nanto) is a small island south of Île Sainte-Marie, an island off the east coast of Madagascar. Both belong to Toamasina Province.