The first thing to say is – don’t expect Madagascar to be like the films which couldn’t be further from a true representation of this unique and intriguing island if they tried.
Madagascar is the fourth largest over all, and the largest oceanic island in the world. This means, quite obviously, that it has a lot of beaches – a big pull for tourists looking for an idyllic beach holiday. Another attraction is the individuality of the island. After 182 years of separation from Africa the country has developed many endemic species. These are animals that are only found in one place – such as the famous lemurs. All of this means tourists have been steadily flocking to the country for the past decade. 312,000 tourists have visited the country since 2006, though there has been a slight decline since the political instability began in 2009. Many of the tourists who come are French since the country used to be under French rule and the language is spoken by most of the educated locals. Malagasy is the official language but although there is an official version of Malagasy, there are many variations across the country which could trip you up even if all you want to learn to say is hello.
The large visitor numbers come despite the extreme poverty found in the country – 70% of Malagasy people live on less than $1 a day. But to many, tourism is a form of income – with tourism accounting for 5.1% of the total employment in the country. The poverty does have its downside for visitors – there are few hotels that meet our own ideas of 5 star luxury. There are around 550 hotels in the country – only 110 of them classified as meeting international standards.
The country’s subtropical climate can vary between seasons and area. The wet season runs from November to March and the North and Eastern areas can suffer from dangerous cyclones. During the dry season, temperatures can get a little cooler, especially at night. But the popular area of Nosy Be has its own climate which keeps it hot during the day for the majority of the year.
Although many visitors do choose the mainland where there are a variety of national parks the largest area for tourism is this separate island of Nosy Be – an hour’s flight from the capital of Antananarivo. Less built up than the mainland, the isolated coastal areas of the north are dream locations. This sought out isolation does mean that many of the areas can only be reached by boat and visitors should be aware that Malagasy people take a much more relaxed approach to life. For this reason you should expect to wait for any local modes of transport including taxis and flights and be aware that road journeys can be long and uncomfortable. The best way to ensure your trip is to book a package with a tour guide. This is always a safer and more guaranteed way to travel but will mean you’ll only see what they decide to show you and some may find it slightly uncomfortable to be going on a ‘tour’ around a desperately poor village.
In some of the areas that are used to tourists, such as Hell-ville on Nosy Be, you can expect to encounter some hassle from a minority of locals as they will expect you to be wealthy. But it is not as extreme as many tourist hotspots such as Egypt and should by no means put you off a visit.
Some of the popular locations on the mainland include the Berenty Reserve and Isalo, Andohahela and Andringitra National Parks as these are all places you are likely to spot the Ring Tail Lemur. Where ever you visit you should always bear in mind local beliefs and customs – the majority of Malagasy people follow indigenous or Christian belief systems. The biggest tradition to be aware of however is ‘Fady’ – a collection of ideas which are considered taboo and these can vary across the island.
There really are some beautiful sights to see, including a collection of their native trees in the Avenue of the Boabab, and the unique culture and wildlife truly make this island a fascinating visit.