Réunion is one of the richest islands in the Indian Ocean. The standard of living is fairly high, and it's no surprise. As a French département (a French overseas territory), the island receives a lot of financial support from mainland France (la métropole). Despite this assistance, Réunion faces numerous challenges as it grapples with finding housing and job opportunities for its expanding population without compromising what makes the island so special – its extraordinary natural riches.
The New Coastal Road
This is the biggest infrastructure project in Europe (yes, Europe). After much controversy, the construction of the Nouvelle Route du Littoral has begun. This engineering feat involves the building of a new coastal highway between St-Denis and La Grande Chaloupe (north of St-Paul). The masterpiece of these herculean works is a 5400m-long offshore viaduct along the coastline. Currently, the existing Route du Littoral, the key artery connecting the capital to the northwest, is often closed due to landslides, causing mayhem for its estimated 60,000 daily motorists. With an estimated project-completion date of 2021 (and budget of €1.6 billion), these huge civil engineering works are expected to reduce congestion and sustain growth on the island but face strong opposition on fiscal and environmental grounds.
The Shark Crisis
In less than 10 years, Réunion has earned the grim distinction of being one of the most active shark-attack zones in the world. Since 2011, there have been 22 shark attacks around the island resulting in 10 deaths (seven surfers, two swimmers and one fisherman). All attacks bar two occurred along the west coast, between Boucan Canot and L'Étang-Salé-les-Bains. This resulted in a major crisis and lots of tension between the surfing community, local environmentalists and the local government about what measures should be taken. Finally, swimming and surfing have been banned around the island in all but a few places. By early 2016, two beaches devoid of barrier reefs – one in Boucan Canot and one in St-Gilles-les-Bains – were equipped with shark nets. In March 2016, surfers started to return to some of their favourite spots – but at their own risk. Swimmers should stick to the safe areas.
Tourism is a major source of income and a key economic sector in Réunion, but the island largely stays under the radar. While elsewhere in the Indian Ocean (especially in Mauritius and the Seychelles) tourism thrives, Réunion saw only around 500,000 tourists in 2017, despite the fact that 40% of the island was designated a Natural World Heritage Site in 2010. This prestigious recognition fostered high hopes but has not been synonymous with a higher influx of foreign tourists, despite a growing number of German visitors. The vast majority of visitors are French. There's a huge potential for growth – experts say that one million tourists per year could be an easy target – but there are a few hurdles: despite some publicity campaigns, Réunion remains under-promoted in Anglophone markets; English is not widely spoken on the island; the cost of flights is still prohibitive; and the lack of direct flights to European cities (bar Paris) is problematic – not to mention the negative publicity following the fatal shark attacks over the last few years. While visitors won't complain about the uncrowded beaches and world-class mountainscapes, boosting tourism remains a key economic hurdle for the island.
Unemployment is Réunion's number-one problem, with the unemployment rate currently hovering around 28% (60% among people aged between 15 and 24), way above the French national average (about 9%). It's particularly problematic for women and young people without qualifications. This situation has led to simmering social unrest, peaking in a series of riots in Le Port in February 2012 and February 2013 and all around the island in November 2018 following the 'yellow vest' crisis in mainland France. Strikes – to put pressure on local government and employers and avoid job cuts – are common in the private sector. On an island with a rapidly increasing population and limited resources, the extent and persistence of local unemployment is a major challenge and solutions have yet to be found. Many Réunionnais have to leave their island to find a job in France. Small wonder that the construction of the Nouvelle Route du Littoral, a mammoth infrastructure project, is seen as an effective way to create jobs on the island.
An Ever-Growing Population
Estimates suggest that the population of Réunion will reach one million by 2030. With high levels of unemployment and an ever-growing population, the island is set for some fundamental challenges, and housing is emerging as one of them. Already there is tremendous pressure on land available for building. Most of the population is concentrated on the coastal strip, where the towns are gradually beginning to merge into one continuous urban ‘ring’. Houses are also spreading slowly up the hillsides and traffic congestion is becoming a major headache. While the behemoth Route du Littoral construction project will ease some pressure off unemployment and congestion (eventually), Réunion needs to find sustainable, long-term solutions to these challenges.