Many Third World leaders are looking to the tiny island nation of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean as a model of economic development in their search for answers in hard economic times.

The "Mauritian Miracle," as it is called in the capital of Port Louis, is being widely recognized as a success story, but good news from the Third World travels slowly.

"We have had no other choice but to develop our island and do it quickly," said Chitmansing Jesseramsing, Mauritian ambassador to the United States. "Our nation is virtually devoid of natural resources and the population density is very high."

There are 38 nation-states like Mauritius, which were once held by Western colonial powers, scattered around the world. All obtained their independence between 1960 and 1975. Mauritius became independent of Great Britain in 1968, and in 20 years has tried to move beyond its traditional single-crop economy of sugar cane to become a bustling international free market zone.

"No economic miracle can happen if the population doesn't believe in its own dignity and is not prepared to work hard," said Jesseramsing.

Mauritius is a Rhode Island-size island of 1.1 million inhabitants located 700 miles off the east coast of Africa. Its isolation from the rest of the developed world has been both a hindrance and a blessing. While thousands of tourists from Europe and Asia are attracted to its white coral beaches and turquoise lagoons, business people have long considered it too difficult to reach.

But with transportation and communication barriers falling, market analysts believe some of the same factors that infused economic energy into the Asian rim nations in recent decades are beginning to exert an influence on Mauritius.

Mauritius promotes itself as a stable alternative to the political uncertainties of South Africa and the instability of many black-ruled African states.

An export processing zone was established in the late 1970s and has become a major success. There are 480 export-zone enterprises employing nearly 80,000 workers. Real growth in the Mauritian gross domestic product was 6.8 percent in 1985 and 7.1 percent in 1986. The small factories scattered across the island produced clothing at first, but now have diversified from model ships to leather coats, ceramics and electronic components.

Executives at the American-owned diamond-cutting firm, Mauriden Ltd., said they are happy with their situation in Mauritius. Their locally cut diamonds will end up at counters at Tiffany and Cartier. The attraction to Mauritius, they said, is a trainable and inexpensive work force. Labor costs are as little as one-tenth those in Europe.

Indeed, Mauritian enthusiasm for encouraging economic growth has produced a business climate that is the envy of many countries.

There are dozens of job openings in local factories and assembly plants advertised in the island's two largest newspapers, L'Express and Le Mauricien. The average salary in the factories is not high by Western standards, $100 to $350 a month, but enough for most workers to subsist at modest standards.

A family planning initiative has succeeded, some say too well, at reducing the birth rate in one generation from eight to 10 children per family to only one or two.

With ideological obstacles falling and food supplies sufficient, there is hope of economic progress nearly everywhere in Mauritius. Buildings are going up in Port Louis. A modern dual motorway winds across the technicolor landscape between the cities of Pamplemousses in the north and Curepipe in the south central plateau.

The literacy rate on the island is high, perhaps as high as 95 percent, especially in the island's heavily populated urban region. Most Mauritians speak two or three languages, including French and English.

Leftist sentiments are not strong on the island, primarily because of its thriving economy, said Richard Kearney, a Fulbright professor from the University of South Carolina who recently returned from Mauritius.

"Almost every political discussion in Mauritius ends favoring free market capitalism. Why argue with success?" said Kearney.

One of the sleeping issues left over from island independence is the Mauritian claim of sovereignty over the tiny island of Diego Garcia, which was wrested from Mauritius by Britain in the turbulent stages of decolonization and has since been converted into a major U.S. military base.

Mauritians were told by the Port Louis press earlier this year that Diego Garcia has been designated as a possible strategic location for America's Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI, stirring among expatriates a still-smoldering resentment over their claims to the real estate.

The nation was beginning to recognize its potential for serious air and water pollution problems, but it took some prodding from the World Bank to push the pollution issue to the top of the country's list of priorities.

Other problems are also beginning to emerge. In the government complex in downtown Port Louis, officials of the World Health Organization are trying to shift their focus from health problems of a rural lifestyle to those of an industrial state.

WHO officers believe the island faces a time bomb with cardiovascular disease rising so steeply that little can be done to forestall a serious health crisis. Mauritius already has the highest incidence of diabetes in the world.

Others worry about the island's reliance on imports that have become essential to daily life. Refined oil products must be imported from the Persian Gulf. Mauritius can maintain only a three-month supply of gasoline, diesel and liquid propane. It used 175,000 tons of refined liquid fuel products last year, all of it imported.

The island's water supply annually runs low during the droughts between summer rain squalls. Water resources already are stretched thin.

Food supplies are sufficient, but the island grows no wheat or rice. A shortage of potatoes several weeks ago raised pointed political questions about the basic food supply.

Still, the nation has little choice but to move ahead with its ambitious development plans. So far it has done so profitably. The country has enjoyed an economic boom that has surprised virtually everyone but those in political power. Much of the credit for the economic boom is given to V. Sectanah Lutchmeenaraidoo, the finance minister who designed the island's economic master plan.

Multiracial and multiethnic Mauritius is a society filled with cultural paradoxes. Some Mauritians despair over the complexities of life created by simultaneous concessions to many religions. The official government calendar is filled with holidays for Hindus, Moslems, Buddhists and Christians.

Mauritians also live with the ambiguities of their economic ties to South Africa. Mauritius has formally opposed apartheid, but has been reluctant to impose formal sanctions.

"Mauritius is too small and poor for us to ask the population to bear the brunt of any retaliation against South Africa," Lutchmeenaraidoo told The New York Times earlier this year.

A more immediate problem is between the U.S. and Mauritius over trade issues. The U.S. quota for sugar imports has been cut nearly two-thirds in the past two years as a protectionist measure. Other export goods are also held in check by U.S. trade restrictions.

Until the mid-1970s, sugar accounted for more than 90 percent of all Mauritian exports and foreign exchange. Sugar cane still covers 95 percent of the island's cultivated land, but is widely recognized as a product with a limited future.