800 kilometres east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, the tropical island of Réunion makes up the Mascarene Islands, along with the islands of Mauritius and Rodrigues. Réunion and Mayotte are the only French departments in the southern hemisphere. Réunion is 9,180 kilometres from Paris. With its tropical forests, volcanic massifs and sugarcane plantations, Réunion is a truly colourful island.
Visitors are quick to see its appeal: tourism has been booming for many years. The island boasts an ethnically diverse population (its history has seen a constantly changing flow of people), a wide range of fauna and flora (coconut trees, vanilla plants, mango trees and the perfumed vetivergrass) and an all-important location in the southwest of the Indian Ocean. A French territory since 1638, Réunion became a French department in 1946.
With a total area of 2512 square kilometres, the island has 210 kilometres of mostly inhospitable coastline, although there are 25 kilometres of white sandy beaches and nearly 14 kilometres of black sandy beaches in the west of the island. Réunion offers virtually no natural shelter for sailing apart from the Bay of Saint Paul. It has two volcanic areas.
In the northwest, the Piton des Neiges (3,069 metres) overlooks the three calderas of Cilaos, Salazie and Mafate which surround it. This last village, home to 700 people, is inaccessible by car. These landforms are the result of the collapse and erosion of the flanks of the old volcano. In the southeast, the Piton de la Fournaise (2,631m) is an active shield volcano. It is a particularly active volcano, which erupts about three times a year — a spectacle which is always enjoyed by the locals. The Plaine des Cafres and the Plaine des Palmistes which converge at the Col de Bellevue link the two massifs of the Piton des Neiges and the Piton de la Fournaise.
The shape of the island, which experiences very heavy rains during the wet season because of its tropical climate (between 2,600 and 4,000 mm in the east from November to April), resulted in the formation of innumerable ravines and rivers which descend from the summits, with steep gorges and quieter areas, filled with rocks and, in some cases, beautiful waterfalls and pools. The erosion in Réunion is some of the most extreme in the world; it is irreversible and shapes the island’s landscapes and topography.
The east and windy side of the island has high levels of rainfall and is home to various rivers (the Mât, the Marsouins and the East rivers), in contrast to the arid lands of the sheltered west coast. Réunion’s vegetation, which has many endemic species, changes with the altitude and the climate: tropical forest and dry savannah, sugarcane plantations and fruit trees. The forest is home to extraordinary tree ferns and fantastically colourful birds.
Réunion’s tropical climate is strongly influenced by trade winds. They differ significantly across the island, depending on the location and the topography. The average temperature is 20°C on the coast and 14°C inland. It should be noted that nocturnal frosts occur at altitudes of 2,000m and above. The hurricane season lasts from December to April.
Réunion’s population was estimated to be 817,000 on 1 January 2009. Its population density of 312 inhabitants/km² is the highest of all overseas departments.
The people of Réunion are diverse and have a wide range of origins: African, Malagasy, European, Indian, Chinese and more.
Natural growth is the driving force behind Réunion’s population growth, accounting for 95% of the population increase since 1999. Changes to the population caused by migration, which was particularly beneficial for the island during the 1990s, has declined considerably since then.
The two biggest cities in Réunion are Saint Denis (with 140,733 inhabitants in 2007, the 23rd biggest city in France) and Saint Paul (101,023 inhabitants in 2007, the 40th biggest city in France).