Story and photos by Kristin Hettermann
In a very special journey connecting generations of sustainable tourism, Lindblad Expeditions’ Founder and CEO Sven-Olof Lindblad traveled to the Seychelles in April to join National Geographic Orion on an expedition through this stunning Indian Ocean island nation.
He was greeted in Mahé, the capital of the Seychelles, by Sir James Mancham, the founding President of the Seychelles. Also a longtime friend of Sven’s father, Lars-Eric Lindblad, Sir James has a longstanding history of support for Lindblad Expeditions and was to join the Orion expedition through the Seychelles as a special guest and Global Perspectives guest speaker. Sir James is a notable global personality, in addition to his role in Seychelles politics he is known to be an International Promoter of the Global Forum for Peace, Reconciliation and Prosperity.
The Lindblad name is synonymous with economic development and sustainable tourism in the Seychelles through the early efforts of Sven’s parents, Lars-Eric Lindblad and Sonia Lindblad, historically recognized as pioneers of the Seychelles tourism industry. Lindblad efforts originally came to the Seychelles in the 60’s to open up international tourism through their Lindblad Explorer eco-cruises — long before the Seychelles opened its international airport. At this time, it was evident that the Seychelles needed tourism to vitalize the precarious economy of the country, but there was a genuine focus on it being done without destroying the wildlife or scenic beauty of this pristine paradise.
The Lindblad seal of approval has subsequently been influential in the Seychelles for many decades. Thousands of travelers have been introduced to the Seychelles through Lindblad cruises and also the development of Travel Services Seychelles, which became the top travel agency in the Seychelles in the 70’s and 80’s. The government wanted to recognize this important relationship by officially awarding Sven the high honor of Cultural Ambassador during his recent visit.
“Tourism started in earnest when people ventured beyond their own borders to see cultural and historical sites of interest. This is what the Lindblad Group were doing when they added Seychelles onto their list of “must-visit” destinations decades ago,” said the Seychelles’ Minister of Tourism and Culture Alain St. Ange, emphasizing their sharing of the “tourism through culture” and eco-conscious platforms.
Sven and Sir James left Mahé on April 13 and flew by small plane to Assumption island, part of the Aldabra archipelago, to meet the Orion and over 100 guests who had made the first few days of the expedition from Tanzania across the Indian Ocean. Once coming aboard, Orion cruised the Aldabra atoll and other islands in the Seychelles group before returning to Mahé on April 23. Travelers enjoyed some of the best snorkeling and scuba diving in the world, impromptu whale watching, nature walks, the magical Valle du Mai (home of the largest coconut in the world, the Coco de Mai) and inspiring talks by National Geographic photographers and the esteemed Sir James.
The visit to Aldabra, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was of particular interest to the group. Uninhabited (with the exception of a small research center) and extremely isolated, Aldabra is the world’s second largest coral atoll and virtually untouched by humans. Known as “one of the wonders of the world,” the atoll is the largest raised coral reef in existence (elevation of 26 feet) and boasts the largest population of the extremely rare giant tortoises (about 100,000 animals). Aldabra also has a large population of the world’s largest terrestrial arthropod, the coconut crab; and hosts the Aldabra rail, the only surviving flightless rail species in the Indian Ocean.
In 1978, Lars-Eric Lindblad, Tony Beamish and Sir James joined forces in an international influence campaign and were instrumental in stopping the Anglo-American decision to turn Aldabra into a military base. Lars-Eric Lindblad covered many aspects of his association with the Seychelles in his story, Passport to Anywhere, which was published in 1983 by Times Book, a division of the New York Times. Included in his expose is background of this influential campaign, where conservation beat politics and now decades later awards the sea to tell the story.
The efforts of a small group of people campaigning to keep Aldabra, and its giant tortoises, preserved and protected eventually resulted in the build-up of the Anglo-US military complex shifting away from the Seychelles and eastwards to the Chagos archipelago. The Seychelles Island Foundation (SIF), a public trust of Seychelles, took over the management and protection of the atoll in 1979, it was declared a Special Nature Reserve in 1981, and became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982.
One of the real highlights of the trip was having Sir James on board as a Global Perspectives guest speaker. Sir James, known as the Founding President of the Seychelles, also lived in exile from the country for 15 years after his opposition staged a coup in 1977. It was during this time in exile that he was invited to travel freely on Lindblad Expeditions, sharing his knowledge and stories with eager travelers. Sir James recalls discovering French Polynesia, Micronesia and Europe with fond memories during these times.
Today the world has become a village. Sven, his mother and Sir James met in New York from various parts of the world for an unlikely reunion in September 2015. Sir James was in New York speaking at a conference on peace and conflict resolution, something that he spends a fair amount of his time doing now around the world.
Sven reflected on the reunion, “My mother looked at Jimmy when he walked in and said, ‘How long has it been?’ ‘Too long, too long,” he replied and then they went on to tell stories. They had accomplished a lot together in the Seychelles in the 70’s and 80’s. I listened mostly with considerable admiration and realized I might never have experienced the beautiful Seychelles if it were not for the confluence of Sir James and my parents.”