Réunion previously Île Bourbon is a French island with a population of about 800,000 located in the Indian Ocean, east of Madagascar, about 200 kilometres (120 mi) south west of Mauritius island, the nearest island.
Administratively, Réunion is one of the overseas departments of France. Like the other overseas departments, Réunion is also one of the 27 regions of France (being an overseas region) and an integral part of the Republic with the same status as those situated on the European mainland.
The island has only been inhabited since the 17th century. It was difficult to reach before the advent of commercial flight, so it took a long time before featuring on the tourist circuit. As a stop on the route des Indes, it was visited by sailors, diplomats and explorers. It was also popular with naturalists such as Jean Baptiste Bory de Saint-Vincent. It was almost by accident that Charles Baudelaire stayed there for several weeks in 1841.
Travel was also difficult on the island itself. The Réunion railway was built in 1882, and before that was built it tool around two days to cross the island from Saint-Denis to Saint-Pierre. Only intrepid hikers made the several-day expedition to see the active volcano Piton de la Fournaise. Creole families from the west explored the more accessible (but still wild) sites such as Bernica and the Saint-Gilles Ravine, as recorded in the poems of Leconte de Lisle. The painter Antoine Roussin published L’Album de l’île as a series of installments in 1857. He was Réunion by adoption and these pictures give an idea of the landscape and the most popular sites on the island during the second half of the 19th century.
The rise of thermalism in the 19th Century set off a little tourist activity among customers looking for relaxation. The spa clients stayed in the elegant Hell-Bourg station, and also in Cilaos after 1882. Access difficulties and the lack of infrastructure stopped a third location, Mafate-les-eaux, from exploiting its thermal potential in the same way.
Until the first half of the 20th century, the economy depended on sugar cane. Réunion became a French department in 1946.