Seychelles & Mauritius have put the Indian Ocean on the map in terms of tourism. There is another island making waves in the modern era though. With a younger tourism industry and no shortage of natural beauty, La Réunion is emerging as a hot spot for global travellers.
Earth has a bountiful of beautiful islands scattered around the globe’s five oceans. Mankind has discovered many of these alluring destinations, but there are numerous islands which humans have just begun to scratch the surface of as tourist destinations. Nestled in the Indian Ocean some 175 kilometres southwest of Mauritius and east of Madagascar, La Réunion is an overseas region of France that is home to sandy beaches, plentiful sunshine, and a vibrant Creole culture that wraps you in its warm embrace and never lets you go.
The island of La Réunion has a total area of just 2,511 km2, but is home to roughly 844,000 full-time residents. The island was uninhabited prior to the 17th century. At this point, explorers from France, Madagascar, and Africa began settling on the island. Slavery helped boost the population as people were brought in from as far away as the south of India to work either as slaves or indentured servants.
Portuguese, and Arab explorers before them, had made inroads on the island as early as the 15th century, but it wasn’t until the 17th century that Europeans (mainly French) began to settle on the island. French colonisation over time is the reason for Réunion’s existence as part of the European Union today. Locals in Réunion speak Réunion Creole as the dominant language on the island, though French is also an official language.
Development of Tourism
As one might expect in such a beautiful corner of the world, the leaders in Réunion eventually turned to tourism as a means for providing a better life. The island could capitalise on the natural beauties of the island and attract tourists to its shores. While the likes of Mauritius and Seychelles already had strong tourism industries by the 1990s, Réunion was barely known.
A second international airport was opened in 1998 to accommodate increased commercial air traffic, and by 2000 the tourism industry was bringing 370,000 visitors to the island with an economic impact of 1.7 million francs. By 2002, that number rose to 426,000, and Réunion had quickly become the fifth most popular destination for French nationals travelling abroad.
Individual Approaches to Tourism
Réunion’s growth in tourism was driven at first by the modern settlements along the island’s northern shores, and its impressive beaches on the west coast. Another concept began to flourish though around the turn of the millennium, as more communities on the island sought to benefit from the boom in tourism.
As the home of a diverse, Creole culture, the concept of Creole Villages emerged as an effective tool for grabbing a slice of the tourism pie for many communities. Local villages marketed their hospitality and unique culture as a means of bringing tourists off the beaches to learn something about the island, its history, and the people who had forged a living there for more than 400 years.
Réunion Island: As Many Activities as You Want
A visit to Réunion is defined not by the tourism board or local hotels, but by the visitor. If you’d like to come to the island and spend your days lounging on the beach, the communities that dot the west coast of the island, such as Saint-Paul, Saint-Louis, and Saint-Pierre are your best bets. For example, Plage de l’Ermitage is a popular beach. However, a visit to Réunion is best enjoyed by those with an active lifestyle.
Réunion just happens to be home to one of the most active volcanoes in the world, Piton de la Fournaise. This shield volcano is situated on the island’s southeastern corner and rises some 2,631 metres (8,632 feet) above sea level. The volcano has erupted more than 100 times since 1640 and undergoes constant monitoring to avoid natural disasters claiming a significant number of lives.
Given the diverse geography of the island, with its stunning peaks and thick forests, hiking is a major draw for outdoor enthusiasts. If you’re particularly ambitious, there are two routes you might want to consider. The GR R2 is a route that crosses from the capital of Saint-Denis in the north to Saint-Joseph on the south side of the island. The trail extends 130km and takes almost a week to complete, but offers some of the most amazing views you’ll see during your trip.
Alternatively, there is the GR R1, which covers the craters of Cilaos, Mafate, and Salazie, and will take you a slightly shorter four days to cover. When it comes to hiking Réunion, there is something for everyone, such as the walk in Mafate that features marked-out footpaths and visits to local villages where cars are not a part of daily life.
If you aren’t interested in the beach and don’t want to hike to see all of the natural splendor of Réunion, tour companies operate daily aircraft and helicopter rides that traverse the island to showcase its many geographic wonders. There are tours of the surrounding islands so you get a picture of the entire region during your visit.
Getting There and Getting Around
No introduction to a tourist destination such as La Réunion is complete without a few tidbits of wisdom when it comes to transportation.
The island has two major airports. The primary airport is Roland Garros International, and is located near Saint-Denis in the north. Air France operates direct flights from Paris Orly. Air Austral is the principle local airline, and connects with South Africa, Comoros, Mauritius, Madagascar, and Seychelles through this airport. Corsair serves Paris Orly, Lyon, Marseille, and Toulouse with weekly flights to and from Roland Garros as well. Air Mauritius flies throughout the region and connects Réunion with destinations as far away as India, Asia, Indonesia, and Europe.
A second airport is located in the south near Saint-Joseph. Pierrefonds International Airport receives flights from Air Mauritius and Air Austral. It is often cheaper to fly into Pierrefonds, but the airport is smaller so security lines can be slower and the proximity to major tourist hubs is far from ideal.
Taxis are an expensive means of getting around the island, with the average ride extracting roughly €15 from your pocket. The island does have a reliable public bus system in place. Yellow Bus (Car Jaune) operates 13 lines between various cities and runs on a 6am to 6pm schedule. There are also local bus routes available. If you wish, you may rent your own car in Réunion, but there is only one main road around the island and one road that cuts through its interior from Saint-Denis to Saint-Pierre.
Volcanic eruptions can close the eastbound portions of the main highway around the island, and a significant portion between Saint-Denis and La Possession runs along a steep cliff embankment and can see its four lanes reduced to two during heavy rains. Traffic is often a problem along the west coast and within the city limits of Saint-Denis, so plan ahead.
Réunion is one of the world’s emerging tourist destinations, and if you’re coming from Europe it is easier than ever to get in as the island has no visa restrictions or requirements for travellers originating in the EU. Now’s the time to book your trip to this hidden gem and discover the beauty that awaits in Réunion.