Cape Verde is a natural enigma for tourists. Visitors are immediately struck by a mystic contrast in landscape. The harsh majesty of the island’s mountains is matched large flat expanses of sun-drenched arid land, as if nature wished to assign different moulds to each of the ‘enchanted isles’ of the Atlantic while designing the archipelago. Uniting the entire mosaic, the sea, blue and warm all year round, forms the perfect backdrop to the white or black coastal sands. Magnificent long beaches and clear, calm waters await those who explore the islands.
Tourism first came to Cape Verde in the 60s, when a Belgian couple, Gaspard Vynckier and Marguerite Massart, built the first vacation homes on the Island of Sal, then little more than uninhabited desert. Up to then, the island had served only as a refuelling stop for trans-Atlantic flights. Shortly afterwards, South African Airways asked the couple to provide improved accommodation for its crew members, which is how the Hotel Morabeza, today one of the most luxurious and welcoming on the archipelago, came into existence.
Santo Antão is the northernmost of the islands and the most mountainous. It is also home to a small spit of land called Ponta do Sol, where the sun goes down on Africa. Beyond the horizon, the American continent is a vast mirage. Like this little spot, Cabo Verde hides numerous charming places ready to surprise the visitor.
The islands are marked by their past as a slave trading centre and a headquarters for infamous pirates, including Francis Drake, the controversial British corsair who terrified Spanish fleets in the 16th century. Although the clear waters of the archipelago ushered in some of the darkest moments in history, Cape Verde now offers an oasis for travellers. Politically stable and free of religious conflicts, in recent years the islands have captured a flow of tourists wary of spending their holidays in North Africa after the events of the ‘Arab Spring’.
Dreamlike beaches are not all the islands has to offer. Activities such as hiking, surfing, kite-surfing are a great way to enjoy the country, along with a biodiversity that attracts researchers from around the globe. The islands also delight the ears, in addition to the eyes, with their music, a blend of Portuguese, African, Brazilian and Antillian sounds. Food lovers must try the ‘pastry with evil inside’, a spicy pastry with a filing of tuna, onion and tomato.
Ten destinations in one
Visitors to São Vicente will take away the memory of its Creole cosmopolitanism, its buoyant cultural life and its welcoming people. The singer Cesaria Evora, possibly Cape Verde’s most international and beloved person, was from here, and every February, Mindelo hosts one of the biggest and most colourful carnivals in the archipelago, a truly tropical display of dancing and partying.
Boa Vista, with kilometres of pristine white-sand beaches, is the newest addition to the Cape Verde tourism offer. Known as ‘turtle island’, its shores are the main spawning ground of the loggerhead sea turtle, which lays its eggs on the beaches of Ervatao, Curral Velho, Lacaca and Santa Monica. More than 3,000 animals are estimated to visit the northern part of the island each year, making Boa Vista the world’s second largest nesting site for these creatures, after Florida, in the United States.
The Island of Fogo is home to Cape Verde’s most impressive natural feature, the Pico de Fogo volcano, which last erupted in 1995 and forced the evacuation of the entire population of Chã das Caldeiras, a village standing within the crater. At 2,829 metres high, the peak rises majestically from the 20-kilometre long and almost 1,000 metre high semi-circular rocky ridge that protects the town. Visitors will also fall in love with the island’s coffee and its wine, made with the particularly tasty local grapes.
Santiago is the largest island and the site of the country’s capital, Praia. With more than 150,000 inhabitants, Praia is home to almost one third of the entire population of the archipelago. The mountainous island also testifies to Cape Verde’s historical heritage, particularly in the old city of Ribeira Grande. Formerly called Cidade Velha, this is where Cabo Verde’s first Catholic churches were built, as headquarters for the mass evangelization of Africa and the Americas.
Windward or leeward, hilly or flat, deserted or inhabited, Cape Verde’s islands can be described in many different ways, but they are united by one common element: they will never cease to captivate visitors.
The tourist sector is the major provider of employment in Cape Verde, and has created more than 9,000 jobs over the last few years. With 534.000 entries in 2012, the tourists outnumbered the local population for the first time. They spent a total $410 million over the 3.2 million nights enjoyed in the country.
The contribution of tourism to total GDP jumped from 15.9% in 2010 to 24.3% only two years later and in the first trimester of 2013 hotel sector activity increased by 18.5% over the same period of the previous year. According to the World Tourism Organisation, Cape Verde enjoyed the largest increase in tourism arrivals in all of Sub-Saharan Africa, an enviable 27%.
Much of Cape Verde’s public investment strategy is directed at this sector in the form of new airport terminals and improvements in cruise traffic handling, with the aim of making the archipelago a more attractive tourist destination. As a result, in 2013 Cape Verde hopes to welcome a further 38,000 passengers from the 54 liners scheduled to dock at the islands’ ports.
The price of success
However, so much tourist activity also has its downside. In Sal, the main destination for foreigners since the 80s, large hotels and resorts have taken over the island’s coastline. This is particularly evident in Santa Maria, where tourism clashes with the local way of life. Some experts believe that irreversible damage has already been done to the fragile ecosystem by the unchecked construction of hotels and the heavy demands of a growing tourist population. If tourist numbers continue to increase at the current rate, they will soon exceed the number of persons the islands can ecologically sustain.
Whatever the case, Cape Verde needs tourism if it wants to secure the future of the islands and ensure the welfare of a society that has virtually no natural resources beyond its landscape. The challenge to Cape Verde is to develop tourism in an environmentally friendly and sustainable manner, so that today’s bounty is not merely a short-term bubble. The solution requires a solid source of long-term revenues and a business-model that traces a better future for all its inhabitants when what Cape Verde needs is a solid source of long-term revenues and a business-model that traces a better future for all its inhabitants.