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Sunday Times STLive By Greg Mills , 2012-03-25

Tropical island holiday musing


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THE Swedish couple were an unexpected find. After all, the Ilha de Mozambique sits sweltering in the Indian Ocean just 15 degrees from the equator.

But they had not come here only to defrost. Instead, in the wake of a tourist trip, they bought three old interlinked warehouses once used for the storage of Mozambique's signal colonial crop, cashews.

The couple spent five years converting them into an 11-roomed boutique hotel, notable for its aspect, understated taste and serenity.

It wasn't easy. Imported building materials had to be brought from Nampula, 175km away. Licensing took time in a country where even five years ago, computerisation was a novelty.

And some things remain problematic. There are no scheduled flights to the airstrip at nearby Lumbo, with its neoclassical gem of a terminal. "The cost of my ticket from Amsterdam to Nairobi was less," one observer reflected, "than the leg from Nairobi to Nampula." Uncertainty over visas adds to the perception of risk, even though these documents can now be purchased on arrival at airports by many nationalities.

Then there are the challenges of running even a small facility on a water-scarce island, including the absence of fresh produce that has to be brought in from afar. The average length of stay is just three days and most (foreign) visitors are low-yield backpackers, there being little to entice them to remain longer.

While hoteliers can put on boat trips to entertain, there is concern about dwindling fish stocks due to the pressures of overpopulation on the mainland, which is connected by a 3km causeway to the island. And the shopping, another tourist "essential", is limited.

Despite this, the island, a Unesco world heritage site, is an extraordinary tourist asset, even in a country where there is much to choose from along the 2800km of coastline.

An Arab port before Vasco da Gama's arrival in 1498, the island became the capital of Portuguese east Africa and a centre for the trade in spices, slaves and gold, until the end of the 19th century when it moved south to today's Maputo.

The Chapel of Nozza Senhora de Baluarte, built in 1522 in the fort at the end of the peninsula, is said to be the oldest European building in the southern hemisphere.

Tourism has been slowly growing over the past decade, up to over 7000 visitors in 2010. Now there are big choices to be made, which could transform the island from an adventure to a jet-set destination.

The most iconic building is the 19th-century hospital, once the largest such facility in sub-Saharan Africa, but badly dilapidated, which would make a lovely luxury hotel. But who will pay for a new hospital? And can an investor move the primary school, which obscures the sea view? More than 1400 children are educated here.

There is a need to take the tourism development process to the next level, from guesthouses and home stays to a five-star hotel.

The island, where the facilities were designed for 5000 and today support at least 17000 people, will need to depopulate. The only way to achieve this, it seems, is to offer attractive employment prospects on the mainland. Yet the island offers better opportunities.

The cycle of underdevelopment demands leadership to establish both vision and policy. And it requires people thinking beyond today and focusing on tomorrow's opportunities.

  • Mills has been on the Ilha de Mozambique this week.