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Monday, November 28, 2022

Sao Tome and Principe: An Ecotourism Eden or a Star Tourist Performer

Set on the fringes of the African continent, this former Portuguese colony witnessed decent tourist arrivals from 2010 onward

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Raghu Gururaj
Raghu Gururaj
Ambassador of India to the Republic of Sao Tome and Principe


SAO TOME and PRINCIPE: The petite islands of Sao Tome and Principe may be one of the poorest in monetary terms, but they are one of the richest in biodiversity and virgin rainforests. It punches far above its weight as an eco-tourism destination.

Descending on these islands is like travelling back in time. With little noise and air pollution, being sparsely populated, and no traffic jams, time weighs heavily on one’s hands.

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The serenity of the beaches is matched only by the lush greenery that drapes the distant volcanic mountains.

The languid grace of its people is synchronous with the idyllic surroundings and tropical charm of these islands. Many things are going for it.

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Set on the fringes of the African continent, this former Portuguese colony with relative geographical proximity to Europe witnessed decent tourist arrivals from 2010 onward.

From just 8000 in 2010, it jumped to almost 35,000 arrivals in 2018, making this sector one of the major drivers of Sao Tome’s economy.

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During this period, the contribution of the sector to the national GDP has ranged between 25 and 29%.

With the onset of COVID in 2020, tourist arrivals plummeted to 2010 levels, before showing signs of revival in 2022. The IMF has identified the tourism sector of Sao Tome as one of the main contributors to the GDP of Sao Tome.
 
Despite efforts targeting the tourist dollar, commercial tourism has never taken off on these prehistoric-looking islands. The stark insularity, remoteness, and smallness of these islands are critical limiting factors.

The implication of being small and disconnected is that Sao Tome can only absorb so many tourists, even in the best of times.

Policymakers would still need to build connectivity infrastructure to bridge travelling distances, reduce vulnerability to become sustainable, and create a critical mass to increase the efficiency of the sector. All these things have not happened in Sao Tome.

However, the most critical factor is that, for centuries, the islanders have developed a deep understanding and connection with their environment and natural surroundings.

Their traditional way of life has given them an innate awareness of the role of nature and the value of biodiversity.

This is a rare quality for a group of people to have, but it also makes it difficult for policymakers to pursue an aggressive tourism policy to create a commercial tourism boom.

For these reasons, Sao Tomé and Prncipe may never become mass tourism destinations. But it has all the attributes to become a high-end and niche destination for wealthy tourists.

Sao Tome and Principe can lay claim to several stunning natural physical features that rival some of the best in the world.

The pristine sandy beaches with crystal clear waters, dreamy waterfalls, lush rainforests, rich biodiversity, stupendous volcanic peaks, gushing streams, medicinal gardens, fruit farms, vantage viewpoints overlooking dense jungles, historical plantation sites, and museums

Apart from its unsullied natural beauty, there are several other intriguing aspects to these enchanting islands that can bewitch a visitor. Colonial architecture, cocoa plantations, mangroves, the chocolate industry, whale watching, turtle farming, diving and snorkeling, trekking, interesting cultural traditions drawn from its colonial past, quaint little fishing villages, plantation museums, and last but not least, the disarming smiles of the people are some of the interesting things about the islands.

Photo Credit: Pixabay/Pexels

When the entire island of Principe was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve in 1980, the need to preserve the precious ecosystems for posterity was reinforced at every level.

Principe Island is championing sustainability and is guided by the “PLUS” principle: preserving biodiversity, celebrating local culture, uplifting the community, and commitment to sustainable business and development practices.

In many ways, it has become the ideal natural laboratory and model for experimenting with green initiatives for the whole country.

After Sao Tome lost its glory as the world’s biggest cocoa exporter, many of its plantations fell into disuse. A few western entrepreneurs have converted the plantation complexes into high-end eco resorts, which have become tourist hotspots.

While there is a growing recognition at the policy-making level of the need to promote Sao Tome and Principe as a high-end, eco-tourist destination, there is also a growing pressure on the economy to diversify away from its reliance on agricultural exports.

With the oil sector showing no promise in the short term, it would be tempting for Sao Tome to push commercial tourism for precious dollars, which could come at the expense of sustainability.

Both the IMF and UNESCO are assessing Sao Tome from their different standpoints. As one of the major donors, the IMF has identified the tourism sector of Sao Tome as having high promise to enhance the country’s GDP. UNESCO would be monitoring progress on the preservation of the ecosystems.

In the coming years, would Sao Tome follow a “minimum impact, maximum experience” policy to make Sao Tome an ecotourism Eden? or would it plump for unbridled growth of the tourist sector to generate jobs and develop economically?

Also Read: The Enticing Waterfalls of Sao Tome

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