The Dark Side of a Paradise Island

The killing of an Irish teacher on her honeymoon shocked the world, but not those who know Mauritius well
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The Independent Online

The image of Mauritius that tourist brochures like to portray usually features the crystal-clear turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean lapping beaches of perfect white sand.

Palm trees sway gently in the breeze, smiling waiters serve cold drinks. The sun always shines.

A very different scene played out yesterday in Belfast, where a plane landed carrying the body of Michaela McAreavey. The young teacher had been strangled on her honeymoon at the luxury Legends hotel; her body had been found by her husband.

Three men have been charged in connection with her killing – she apparently disturbed thieves in her room – and the crime dented the island's idyllic image. But it was not an isolated incident, and as someone who lived and worked there for more than three years, I have to say that it was not a surprise. During my time on the island, I saw a steady increase of violent crime.

For an island usually described as paradise there is a lot wrong with Mauritius. Problems of alcohol, drugs and poverty have all contributed to the country's ills.

Tourists visiting the island will mostly never see the real Mauritius. Many will stay in one of the island's 40 or more luxury hotels and never leave the hotel's grounds, preferring to just laze on the beach, swim in the ocean, play golf, enjoy the numerous watersports on offer, or just relax in the spa. Those staying at the island's cheaper hotels are also unlikely to stray far from the beach and so will never see the intense poverty that afflicts most of Mauritius.

Tourism may have brought much-needed foreign currency, but it has contribution to development has been patchy. When I first visited the island in 1994 it took almost four hours to drive the 40 miles from the north of the island to the south because the roads were so bad. There was a solitary fast food restaurant on the island, a Pizza Hut in the capital Port Louis.

But my girlfriend and I could walk through the unlit streets of Grand Baie, then the main tourist town, at midnight without any fear of being attacked, except maybe by one of the thousands of wild dogs that roamed the island. We could chat with groups of teenagers out on the town without fear of being mugged or worse.

When I returned in 2006, it was a radically different island. I could drive those 40 miles in less than two hours and any delays were likely to be caused by traffic congestion rather than by poorly made roads (it seems every Mauritian now owns at least one car). There were shopping malls, fast food restaurants and high rise buildings everywhere (in 1994 Mauritius had a law preventing the construction of any building above three storeys). And, within our first six weeks, my girlfriend had been robbed and attacked on the way to her early morning swim in the beautiful Indian Ocean at Flic en Flac, another tourist hot spot.

Why had this happened? Analysis is not easy – and getting crime statistics from the Mauritian authorities was a near impossible task, particularly because they might have a negative effect on tourism, one of the island's main sources of income.

But in the first 62 days of 2010, seven people were murdered on the island and one burglar was shot and killed in the act of breaking and entering. There were 10 further incidences of violent crime, including one in which some French tourists were robbed by three men armed with a revolver and machetes.

Most of the violence is by Mauritians against fellow Mauritians, but some of it is directed against tourists. Most of the violence is connected with petty crimes, but there was one rape last year.

And other brutal crimes have been perpetrated. In September last year, seven-year-old Samuella Martin was found burnt alive in the sugar cane fields, having been raped and set alight by her uncle. The following month, a man was jailed for 26 years for his part in the rape and murder of a two-year-old girl. And in November, Serino Calou murdered a 17-year-old boy and raped his girlfriend on a public beach.

Much of this violence can be attributed to the island's massive alcohol problem. Mauritius also has a serious opiate abuse problem, ranking fifth in the world per head for opiate use, according to the latest United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report. Locally grown marijuana is smoked all over the island.

The United States has also highlighted Mauritius as a destination for child sex tourism: an estimated 2,600 children are trafficked internally to fuel the trade. Four thousand cases of child abuse were reported on the island in 2010.

The prime minister, Navinchandra Ramgoolam, has also admitted that suicide has become a national problem among the islands' population of just 1.2 million.

In the 42 years since independence, the island has effectively been ruled by two family dynasties, the Ramgoolams and the Jugnauths. Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, known as the "father of Mauritian independence", was the island's first prime minister, from 1968 to 1982, and his son Navin is in the second of his two terms as premier.

I finally left Mauritius last June, tired of the rising violence and daily corruption and the stress of driving around the island: last year there were 20,000 road accidents, which left 151 people dead. And with the murder of Michaela McAreavey, a little more of the dark side of Mauritius has been revealed.

Mauritius: fact file

Population: 1.3 million (according to UN figures for 2010)

Area: 2,040 sq km (788 sq miles)

Capital city: Port Louis

GNI per capita: US$7,240 (£4,560)

Life expectancy: 76 years for women, 68 years for men

Languages: English (official), Creole, French, Indian languages

Religions: Hinduism (52 per cent), Christianity (28 per cent), Islam (17 per cent)

Main industries: sugar, tourism, tea, textiles, banking and business outsourcing