Ecotourism in Mauritius is gaining traction and that’s something to celebrate. Here, we take a look at some of the sustainable initiatives going on there as well as what individual travellers can do.
Why should we care about ecotourism in Mauritius?
Sustainable travel matters and it always has. That we already know. But beyond good intentions, what can businesses and individuals do to make sure that we’re moving in the right direction. Earlier in the year, I had the chance to head south and explore ecotourism in Mauritius.
Disclosure : I travelled to Mauritius as a guest of Heritage Resorts. As ever, as always, I kept the right to write what I like. Otherwise, what’s the point?
First off: where is Mauritius?
Mauritius is a tiny island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, located about 2,400 kilometres off the South East Coast of Africa and almost fully surrounded by colourful coral reefs. Volcanic in origin, its land is covered in dense forests and reservations, home to the Mauritius kestrel and giant tortoises.
Mauritius already attracts over 1 million tourists to its natural paradise each year. However, as the island with the highest population density in Africa, and a great deal of transport required to import goods and people, the challenges of climate change loom large. In other words, perhaps, its position makes a focus on sustainable travel all the more important.
Then there is the dodo, the most famous example of extinction in history. For Mauritius is home to the Dodo – or at least it used to be. Now, the great bird simply watches new arrivals in the airport hall, alive only in the form of the world’s imagination and a series of bright coloured keyring chains.
Today, ecotourism in Mauritius aims to do better. And you’ll find a series of initiatives across the island, spearheaded by passionate individuals and forward-thinking companies.
I visited Mauritius in partnership with Heritage Resorts to take part in their sustainable food festival and learn more about their approach.
How to have a more eco-friendly trip to Mauritius
The ultra short version involves reading this article on how to be a responsible tourist and taking it from there.
The slightly short version involves skipping down to the heading on how to boost ecotourism in Mauritius.
And in the longer version, settle down with a rum cocktail (locally produced, obviously) and catch up with Alexandre Piat, the Head of Sustainability at Heritage Resorts. A scientist, rather than a PR man, he’s unusually frank, honest and not afraid to talk about the things that aren’t working well -yet. He’s also shy about his English , even though he shouldn’t be.
Imagine the crash of the ocean, the soothing beats of the beach bar and the sun on the back of your neck as you read. Got it? Then we shall begin…
So, what kind of training do you have to become Head of Sustainability?
I have a Masters in the Science of Earth and the Environment and spent two years in coastal projects management. Now, sustainable travel is a degree subject in Mauritius and newer staff arrive with that under their belt.
How long have you been working here?
I arrived four years ago. First, it was just me but now we have a team of eleven people.
And, without meaning to sound rude, what do you do all day?
Most of our time is spent measuring and training. We run two hour training sessions each week for staff and try to inspire people to champion ideas for how to make each department more sustainable.
We measure and compare to the baseline. We have to measure, to be transparent and sincere as it is so easy to greenwash, even by mistake. We have to be careful not to over represent the PR if a project can’t keep up.
What is the hardest thing?
Changing the culture. The real challenge is trying to get people to understand why we are making a change. Both guests and staff have an idea that to be a luxury hotel, the air conditioning must be at a certain temperature and the linen should be changed every day and the buffet should be huge.
Trying to get people to change those ideas is the biggest challenge.
What’s had the biggest impact?
Hm…. I would say that waste management is the biggest one. We have changed the buffet to include more local food and to limit the food we import. We try to educate guests as to why we are doing that so that they don’t think it’s a problem. We take leftovers to an NGO nearby and we are working on a recycling scheme.
Let’s talk carbon footprints. I think we all know that’s a problem as, realistically, people have to fly to Mauritius. But Heritage Le Telfair is carbon neutral, right? What does that mean?
It means we have a project to make each stay carbon neutral. That consists of three parts.
- We calculate the carbon footprint. This is complicated because there are different ways, direct and indirect, to do this. We use the HCMI2 calculator which is specific for hotels and we work with the IA, a French company, to help calculate this independently.
- We try to reduce our carbon footprint. At Heritage Le Telfair, 40-50% of our energy is spent on air conditioning. And so we are trying to train our staff to change the thermostats.
- We offset. We know that this is not ideal but we then buy carbon offsets to make up the rest.
Unfortunately, this project does not include flights just yet but we are working with Air France on that. It doesn’t include transfers yet, either.
What other initiatives do you have?
We have many. But they take time.
- We are working on building a field of solar panels and aim for that to provide 80% of our energy needs by next year.
- We are working with a local NGO to see what they need, we donate food and leftover paint for example and I travel there once a month to check in and see that what we are doing is useful.
- We have recruitment targets to make sure that local people benefit from the jobs at this resort and run a training academy to prepare people for the hospitality sector.
- We are growing our own herb and vegetable garden to reduce food transport further.
- And, we have just launched our annual sustainable food festival.
Do you think there is hope for the future?
[Big smile.] Yes, I think it is amazing to see the change, even though it is slow. It is so important. Well, we all have to do it.
Ways your visit can boost ecotourism in Mauritius
Use your voice
Support hotels and businesses who are making an effort. Ask questions at hotels and leave thoughtful feedback. Check out these other suggestions on how anyone can be a responsible tourist.
Cut your power use
Turn off the AC when you leave and turn the thermostat up when you are in.
Carry a reusable water bottle and turn down straws
Cut down on disposable plastic in one easy step.
Use reef safe sunscreen
Otherwise, chemicals in your sunscreen can damage those gorgeous reefs. See more sustainable beach tips here.
Think about your flight
Yes, that long haul flight isn’t going to be magically wiped away by, well, anything. But you can make the most of your trip by following all the principles of sustainable travel, staying for as long as you can – and really, really enjoying yourself when you’re there. And while carbon offsetting is a controversial practice, you can look into it more here.
Try some specific activities that protect nature in Mauritius
And that’s where the next section comes in!
Activities that Boost Ecotourism in Mauritius
When it comes to the best way of protecting endangered species, where we go and what we spend money on makes a difference. By supporting the protection of the environment and local tradition in a non-exploitative way, you can cast your vote for the kind of tourism you want.
Mauritius is bursting with beauty and great initiatives to boost sustainable travel. Here are some top examples of ecotourism activities in Mauritius. Some I had the privilege of testing out, others come highly recommended and I hope to return to try.
Explore the Trails in Black River Gorges National Park
As the largest protected park in Mauritius, Black River Gorges National Park mesmerises with its rolling hills, blue lakes, and the waters of the Alexandra Falls. Locals told me that this was the best area for hiking on the island, and local guides can still show you some secret spots. You’ll also find gentler paths for nature lovers and more adventurous routes for the bold.
Here in the Black River Gorges National Park, you can spot the pink pigeon, rescued from extinction only a few years ago. Look out for giant fruit bats even in the day, their heads dangling from branches like macabre festive baubles.
Don’t worry, though. Despite the vampire look, they are fully fruitarian and will not attack you in any way. The Mauritius kestrel and echo parakeet also spend their lives in the dark forests of the Black River Gorges so wear neutral colours, keep quiet and you may just see them.
The Bel-Ombre UNESCO Biosphere Reserve
Roam through the Bel Ombre UNESCO Biosphere Reserve
A 5-hour trek will take you into the deep nature of the Bel Ombre biosphere reserve, where you can admire the centenary trees, brooks and waterfalls. Quad biking tours are also popular if you are a fan.
Or, you can clamber into a safari truck and drive through the reserve that way. This land shows the native state of the landscape in Mauritius, setting the scene for how things used to be.
If you are visiting in March or April when the guavas are ripe and ready for harvesting, you can hire a local guide to show you how to pick them yourself.
- Top tip: while you’re in the area, make sure to stop off and see the Seven Coloured Earth, a geological structure made of seven types of clay.
Diving in the Indian Ocean
The large chain of coral reefs that surrounds the island of Mauritius makes it a magnet for diving and snorkelling fans. However, due to pollution, some of the lagoon reefs have lost a big part of their coral cover in the past years. The island has developed a series of marine conservation programs to help rehabilitate the reefs, but until they recover their natural beauty, you will have to take your snorkelling or diving further from the beach.
Most eco-tourists prefer the protected marine reserve at the Blue Bay Marine Park, near Mahébourg, where it is easier to spot sea turtles.
You can also dive for up to 45 meters if you have the necessary permits. Highlights include butterfly fish, barracudas and bull sharks.
If you want to explore the beauties of the ocean without getting wet, there’s also another option. Let a glass-bottomed boat take you where the fun is and gaze down at the marine underworld beauty with all your clothes on.
One important thing to remember is to avoid using chemical-based sunscreens that pollute the water and lead to further deterioration of the reefs. Reef-safe sunscreen is the phrase you need to look for.
- See more sustainable beach trip tips here.
Go back in time on Ile aux Aigrettes Island
Preserved by the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation, Ile aux Aigrettes is a small island close to the coast of Mahébourg where you can see what Mauritius would have looked like before the arrival of man. The foundation’s goal is to raise awareness of the importance of green tourism while creating jobs for local people.
Tours are conducted by expert guides and take around an hour and a half, which is enough to discover many of the rare plants, birds, and animals, some of them unique in the world. Here you can see the famous giant tortoise and the pink pigeons.
If you are interested in birdwatching or photography, tour operators can arrange for you to have a great time with one of their tailor-made tours. And remember, everything you spend here goes to the foundation and will help preserve nature and support the local communities on the island.
Visit the Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanical Garden
Don’t imagine a small collection of potted plants. The Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanical Gardens are actually a huge park that would take you a week to explore. Luckily, they offer guided tours for only 1 euro per person, so you can see all the main attractions in just a few hours.
The main attractions are the palm trees, with over 85 varieties. But the Baobabs are also a highlight, as are the other indigenous plant species that create the perfect environment for the giant tortoises of the Indian Ocean.
And while we’re on the subject of giant, it’s impossible to miss the ‘Victoria Amazonica’ giant water lilies, sprawling across the lakes.
The eco-tour will also take you to the spice garden founded during the rule of King Louis the XV, when the French started cultivating spices in Mauritius in an attempt to end the Dutch monopoly. The garden includes many of the spices used in the local cuisine, like cinnamon, clove trees, and nutmeg.
Eat where local people eat
Sustainable tourism isn’t only about ecotourism, however. Sustainable tourism helps local communities, and their finances, as well as protecting the environment.
In Mauritius, you have two main possibilities when it comes to food: you can either dine at a 5-star luxury resort which promotes sustainable travel or you can try a smaller restaurant that cooks fresh seafood and creole dishes.
Mauritian cuisine has wonderful variety, fusing African, French and Indian influences with local fish like blue marlin and plentiful fresh fruits like mangoes, bananas, and pineapple. Vindaye, which is deep-fried fish with a condiment crust, is very popular, as a more fragrant kind of vindaloo. You’ll also spot the Indian influence in dishes like biryani or chilli-coconut chutney.
A general tenet of sustainable travel is that you have more chance of experiencing an authentic culinary experience if you visit small local restaurants. But don’t write off the big resorts completely.
This trip to a sustainable food festival in Mauritius run by Heritage Resorts really made me see this traditional advice in a new light. And you know what? Plenty of locals ate there too.
So, if you’re looking for my suggestion. I’d suggest a little of both.
Tour Port Louis with a Local Guide
While you can try a self-guided tour experience through the capital, touring with a local guide is the best way to immerse yourself in this mixed cultural heritage. A good guide will show you some of the oldest restaurants and shops in the Indian and Chinese neighbourhoods, highlighting small family businesses that have thrived over the years. Take a food tour and you can satisfy your stomach at the same time as your brain as you hear colourful stories about the small businesses you are supporting.
Visiting the Natural History Museum is another great thing to do in Port Louis. Located in a 19th-century building that was declared part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, it includes a series of collections presenting the flora and fauna of Mauritius and the Mascarene Islands. It is also home to a real dodo skeleton.
More on Sustainable Travel
- Start here: how to be a responsible tourist
- Is dark tourism ethical? What you need to know.
- Get inspired by this collection of the best sustainable travel blogs.
- 9 powerful benefits of sustainable tourism (and why you should care)
- The unmistakable emotional meaning of home
- Why we need to talk about the kindness of strangers
- Why you need to know about the cork trees in Portugal
- The importance of doing nothing
- How to get off the beaten track: three techniques you haven’t thought of
- Surprising ways to help protect endangered animals
- How to find the most ethical travel destinations
- 7 Fun and tasty examples of great food tourism
- 15 sustainable beach tips for your next trip to the sea