Mauritius flies under the radar when it comes to its international profile, and that's just how locals like it. A stable political scene, a steady economy that weathered the global financial crisis relatively unscathed, and a general lack of social unrest may not make for great headlines, but put them together and you’ll find a country largely at peace with itself. It is, of course, more complicated than that, but not by much.
Mauritius gets little credit for its remarkable economic success story. When it became independent in 1968, the country had few resources beyond sugar cane. Five decades later, the country’s inhabitants enjoy living standards the envy of just about every other nation in this part of the world. For most of those decades, the catch cry for economic policymakers in Mauritius has been diversification – away from sugar cane, then away from textile manufacturing in the face of competition from China, and so on. And it’s a challenge that the country has largely met. Moves towards what former prime minister Paul Bérenger described as a 'quantum leap' to transform Mauritius into a 'knowledge island’, canny forays into the world of international banking and establishing Mauritius as call-centre hub all helped. From 2010 until 2015, at a time when developed economies across the world were foundering, Mauritius maintained growth at a highly respectable 3% to 4%. With unemployment below 8% and GDP per capita rising to nearly US$20,000 in 2015, these are no abstract economic numbers but the outward signs of an economy that continues to bring significant benefits to its people.
Politics in Mauritius tends to work pretty well – government transitions have always taken place by means of the ballot box and political debate rarely strays into dangerous territory. But talk politics with many Mauritians and you’ll quickly find that there are two overriding problems with Mauritius’ political scene. First, politics here has long been the preserve of career politicians and their families, with three names recurring across the history of independent Mauritius: Anerood Jugnauth (the current prime minister, who has served six times as prime minister since 1982), Paul Bérenger (political leader of the Franco-Mauritian community and six-time leader of the opposition since the early 1980s), and two-time prime minister Navin Ramgoolam (the son of independence leader Sir Seewoosagur). With the same faces in power for almost four decades, many Mauritians argue, real change becomes more difficult. The second problem with an unchanging political landscape is the fear that ethnic tensions, which flared briefly but powerfully in 1999, have never been addressed in any meaningful way and continue to simmer beneath the surface.
Mauritius may not be one of those ocean islands that will disappear beneath the water when global warming causes sea levels to rise. But that doesn’t mean it will be immune from the effects of climate change. Mauritius (and Rodrigues) inhabit a tough neighbourhood when it comes to climate – the cyclone season begins in January, and the sometimes-devastating cyclones that come with it have been a hazard of Mauritian life for as long as anyone can remember. Even so, the country was ill-prepared for the torrential rains that battered it in late March 2013, causing flash flooding, particularly in Port Louis, and the deaths of 11 people. Then prime minister Navin Ramgoolam blamed climate change for the devastation. While many saw his claim as an attempt to detract attention from the failure of successive governments to maintain basic infrastructure – most of the flooding was caused by blocked drains – everyone feared that there might just be a little truth in what he said.
It would be a brave Mauritian who would question the benefits that tourism has brought to the country. The industry has, after all, played a major role in Mauritius' economic prosperity for decades and the clever positioning of the country as a luxury destination has protected the industry from the vagaries of falling tourist numbers that affect the midrange travel market during tough economic times. But that’s not to say that there aren’t some important issues in play here. Serious water shortages in Rodrigues already trouble hotels (not to mention ordinary Rodriguans), with fears about the long-term impact of tourism on the island’s resources. And while tourism is playing an important role in boosting programs to restore habitats and assist in the recovery of endangered species along the east coast (as in Île aux Aigrettes and Vallée de Ferney), there are growing concerns over the sustainability of a number of popular activities such as diving and dolphin-watching over in the west and their impact on the environment.