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São Tomé e Principe: a ‘tropical paradise’ in the Atlantic

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Praia Inhame Eco Lodge, São Tomé e Principe.

Praia Inhame Eco Lodge, São Tomé e Principe.

São Tomé e Principe: a ‘tropical paradise’ in the Atlantic,  By James Brewer

Here is a suggestion for something exotically different for a 2016 vacation. How about a South Pacific-style ‘tropical paradise, ’ that is not in the South Pacific, but is in the Atlantic?

Consider the smallest state of Africa: the archipelago of São Tomé e Principe, which at its southern tip just touches the Equator.

The formerly Portuguese territory in the Gulf of Guinea set out its stall as an emerging holiday spot during the 2015 World Travel Market in London, notably through the enthusiasm of Rui Rodrigues, marketing director of Praia Inhame Eco Lodge.

Praia Inhame accommodation.

Praia Inhame accommodation.

Mr Rodrigues said that main objective at the WTM was to build bridges with new markets and promote the Eco Lodge.  The lodge – marketed as “your paradise on earth” – is an hour and 40 minutes from the airport of São Tomé and close to the fishing village of Porto Alegre.

Travelling north from Porto Alegre to Sao Tomé City is a different matter: the 80 km journey can take several hours… but one can mostly live without cities when there are attractions in the resort such as boat excursions to the equatorial islet of Rolas; canoe trips among the mangroves; and bird, whale and sea turtle observation. Surfing lessons, diving, fishing and guided forest hikes are among other options.

Boasting a rich biodiversity with a high presence of endemic species (all harmless except occasionally the mosquito and thus malaria tablets are recommended), the two main islands of São Tomé and Principe are separated by 150 km of Atlantic sea. With a 209 km total coastline, they are a part of a range of extinct volcanoes. As everywhere, there are environmental concerns: according to CIA World Factbook, these include deforestation, and soil erosion and exhaustion.

Praia Inhame promotional material.

Praia Inhame promotional material.

São Tomé e Príncipe was ‘discovered’ by Portuguese navigators João de Santarém and Pêro Escobar  in around 1470 on the day of St Thomas, after whom the main island was named.
In 1485 the then governor João de Paiva made an attempt to get the settler convicts to cultivate sugar cane on São Tomé but the workers were hit by disease. Decades later, slaves (the archipelago was a node for transhipment in the slave trade) were set to work on the same project and in the mid-16th century the territory became the leading exporter of sugar.

Portugal was challenged by European rivals over the strategically-located dominion. The Dutch West Indies Company occupied the port and the fort of São Tomé from 1641-1648,  and in 1709 the French attacked. That kind of instability led some of the merchants to abandon their land in order to migrate to Brazil.
Sugar gave way to cacao and coffee plantations in the 19th century, and at one stage São Tomé was second only to Ecuador in cacao exports. Even though slavery was formally abolished in 1875, harsh conditions for labour contracted from Portugal’s other African colonies continued well into the 20th century, and protests were bloodily suppressed in 1953 by what became known as the Batepá Massacre.

Pestana Equador resort restaurant, Rolas island. Photo João Maximo, Lisbon.

Pestana Equador resort restaurant, Rolas island. Photo João Maximo, Lisbon.

Portugal was obliged to divest its overseas possessions after the Carnation Revolution on the mainland in 1974, leading to independence for São Tomé e Principe on July 12 1975 and a one-party government which nationalised plantations. The first ‘free’ elections under a new constitution mandating multi-party democracy were in 1991, and the weak economy has since then been more ‘market oriented.’

The importance of cacao has declined considerably, although tourism authorities say that the country still produces “the best and purest cocoa in the world, ” while the coffee of Monte Café appeals to connoisseurs. Subsistence agriculture, fishing and tourism provide a certain amount of employment for the 200, 000 population, and the economy is propped up by overseas aid.

Oil was discovered offshore in the 1990s and a contract for a joint development zone was signed with Nigeria. Clearly the difficult outlook for the global oil price will influence any progress in this area. Even under any improved oil price, production is said to be several years away.

The website of the Consulate of São Tomé e Príncipe in the Netherlands says that the Dutch provided technical assistance immediately after independence and are currently one of the main importers São Tomé’s most important export product, cacao. The consulate notes that the easiest way to travel to São Tomé from Europe is via Lisbon, from where there are four flights per week to São Tomé: three of them with TAP and one with STP Airways.

The CIA World Factbook reports: “Considerable potential exists for development of a tourist industry, and the government has taken steps to expand facilities in recent years.”

The firm Navetur Shipping & Tourism writes on its website: “Tourism in São Tomé and Príncipe is only a few decades old, and we are pioneers, for good and for bad. There is still a lot of work to be done, but in our hands we have a unique opportunity to shape the future of the sector and thereby, indirectly, the nation. The birth of the Santomean Association of Tourism, AST, is an important initiative in that line, spreading a lot of good vibes and enthusiasm.”

In other words, the “magical paradise” is still in need of more fairy-dust to fulfil its potential.  Given the right conditions, its predominantly young population could work the spells.

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