Friday, January 25, 2008

A vision for sustainable tourism in Cape Verde

Cape Verde is known for long white beaches, some great music, and surfing. Few are aware of the fact that Cape Verde also hosts a unique wildlife and spectacular nature scenery. Tourism could both benefit from and contribute to the protection of this important resource, but the current trend is geared towards a highly resource intensive mass-tourism based on quantity instead of quality. My hope is that future tourism in Cape Verde will adapt to the realities of this small archipelago, offering a diversified and exclusive form of tourism, based on low environmental impact and interesting experiences, such as turtle-watching, mountain-hiking and diving, attracting fewer but wealthier tourists.

When Cape Verde was discovered by the Portuguese more than 500 years ago, they found an uninhabited and green archipelago, with an abundance of trees, grasslands and water streams. The discoverers reported a rich variety of flora and fauna, in particular birds and reptiles. Since then, human impact has completely changed the face of the islands. Many natural habitats for both plants and animals have been lost by conversion to agriculture land, cutting down indigenous forests, poor farming practices, and drought. In addition, introduction of alien plants and animals such as rats, sheep, goats, monkeys and cattle has had devastating effects on the native flora and fauna, at times wiping out entire colonies.

Nevertheless, Cape Verde still hosts a globally unique and interesting biodiversity. For more details on this, see my previous blog Cape Verde’s unique biodiversity: an overview.

The ecology of Cape Verde is very delicate, and is still under severe pressure from a variety of human activities. One of the fastest growing activities on the islands is tourism, currently contributing to about 12% of the country’s total GDP (in 2001, it was only 3,5%). According to the National Statistics Institute, the number of tourists increased from 58.000 in 1998 to 280.000 in 2006, and the number of hotel rooms in the country is expected to go up from 1460 in 1997 to 15500 in 2012. Foreign private investment, most of which is directed towards the tourism sector, has quadrupled in only two years, from USD 50 million in 2005, to a daunting USD 200 million in 2007.

Tourism is clearly a strong engine for economic growth in Cape Verde, attracting foreign private investments and creating employment (even if a significant amount of profits is no doubt leaving the country, and many hotels have a policy of hiring staff from abroad rather than locally). This is in some aspects a positive development, contributing to increased wealth and reduced poverty.

Nevertheless, I have a strong feeling that tourism development in Cape Verde is largely unsustainable, both from an economic and environmental point of view. Why? Simply put, I think it is too big, too much, too fast, too unrestrained.

To my great surprise, I have learned that there is no government national plan or strategy for tourism development in place - no firm political direction is given to this important process. Instead, a laisez faire approach is applied, giving the investment agency Cabo Verde Investimentos free hands to sell land to whomever is keen to buy, on an ad hoc and top-down basis. The mass tourism already experienced in Sal seem to serve as a general model for development on the other islands. Boa Vista is next; several new large hotel complexes (for instance Riu Karamboa, opening by the end of 2008) are being built or planned. Huge investment plans already in place for Sao Vicente and Santiago, and Maio is expected to follow suite.

But is it really sensible to promote mass-tourism in a small and vulnerable archipelago like Cape Verde? Mass tourism requires enormous quantities of energy (produced by diesel generators), water (from desalination plants with very high energy consumption), luxury foods and products (all imported), and large quantities of waste generation (with very limited space for disposal). I am certain that mass tourism on a larger scale would be detrimental to Cape Verde in the long term – environmentally and economically, and maybe also socially. It is simply not viable in an isolated country with a total area of only 4000 km2 (one sixth of the size of Sardinia) with a total annual rainfall of 225 mm. The environment is too fragile to host large hotel complexes with their vast energy and water demands and waste generation. Social tension, spurring criminality and violence, is inevitable, given the excessive luxury inside the fenced hotels and extreme poverty looming outside.

Equally important, there is an obvious risk that mass tourism projects eventually undermine the very reason that make tourists come to Cape Verde in the first place. People don’t come here for a new version of the Canary Islands; they want something different, something exclusive, something exotic. Cape Verde could potentially provide that extraordinary experience, but more all-inclusive hotels and sandy beaches will not do the trick – this can be found in so many other places in the world, often offering better value for the money.

Cape Verde has just begun its tourism development, and it has a fantastic opportunity to diversify its tourism development so as to sustain long term economic growth, minimize social tension and protect its fragile environment. It could offer a variety of high class specialized tourism, reaching out to those tourists who have a particular interest and are ready to pay more for exclusiveness. Those of us fortunate enough to have walked alongside the breath-taking abysses of the mountains of Santo Antao, experienced an outdoor concert with Lura, scrambled the exquisite sand-dunes of Deserto De Viana in Boa Vista, seen baby sea turtles shoving themselves up through the sand and scurrying towards the sea, or hiked the impressive Fogo krater, will surely know what I am talking about.

Here is my vision for tourism in Cape Verde: while Sal is already lost to mass tourism, other islands should be designated as exclusive Eco-tourism or Culture Islands, each of them specializing in their own unique advantages. The sandy islands of Boa Vista and Maio could seek to attract honey-mooners, the mountainous islands of Santo Antão and Fogo would specialize in adventure, hiking and mountain-climbing, Santiago could charm tourists interested in colonial history, and Sao Vicente would be tailored to be appealing to music-lovers, poets and dancers.

Investments in all of these islands should be directed towards low intensive tourism, attracting a smaller number of environmentally conscious and wealthier tourist, all seeking to avoid all-inclusive hotel complexes and overcrowded pool areas, and willing to pay more to experience genuine culture, nature adventure, peaceful mountain hikes, and romantic getaways. Investors should be required to minimize resource and water use, invest in renewable energy, and put in place their own systems for waste regeneration and disposal.

In this way, tourism would benefit both the economy and environment, and it would continue to attract wealthy tourists also 20 years from now.

Cape Verde government’s website on environmental information (
A Semana (
Information from the
from the General Directorate for Tourism and the National Institute on Statistics

Related topic:Opposites Attract?”


Amina said...


Jag heter Amina Makboul och är masterstudent i statsvetenskap. I skrivande stund håller jag på med min masteruppsats. Syftet är att beskriva och förstå hur EU-samordning går till mellan Miljödepartementet och EU-representationen. Detta gör jag genom att studera 2 fall varav det ena är dotterdirektivet till ramdirektivet om grundvatten från 2003. Jag skulle vilja intervjua dig i egenskap av din roll som miljöråd i den första och andra läsningen innan Moncia Törnlund tog över.

Jag skulle vara djupt tacksam om du har möjlighet att ställa upp på en intervju via mejl under februari/mars. Givetvis berättar jag mer om uppsatsen om du önskar innan besked ges.

Med vänlig hälsning,

Amina Makboul

policedogs said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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Angelo said...

Your post gives a lot of excellent food for thought. I don't agree with the premises or the suggested vision for several reasons.

First, Cape Verde is definitely a sensitive ecology and all steps should be taken to protect it. However, that is not incompatible with mass-tourism. Cape Verde has not set a precedent for island tourism. This has long been execute successfully in the Caribbean among island nations both larger and smaller than Cape Verde. The cape Verde government simply needs to take a page out of the Caribbean play book and apply the lessons learned.

Second, while you are absolutely correct that it would be great to attract wealthier tourists, that target market is extremely hard to capture without an equally "wealthy budget." This would require private investors to invest large amounts of capital to target a very narrow segment of consumers ... a very risky proposition.

Finally, attempting to turn each island into a specialist destination, ignores the practical constraints. Each island on its own cannot possibly afford the dedicated resources and investments that would need to be brought to bear to support such specialties and the private investors who would have to be called upon to bring such projects to fruition. There aren't international airports on each island making them hard to get to for the given specialty. And a designated specialty dramatically narrows the target segment to whom it must play, while increasing the competition with other areas of the world who may already be well known in that specialty. You'd have to play serious "catch up" as a developer or investor - a hugely expensive and risky proposition.

In summary, I don't believe Cape Verde has to "sell its soul to the devil" in order to excel at mass tourism while maintaining the integrity of the islands natural beauty. Cape Verde has few natural resources besides its spectacular beauty. In such circumstances, the mass tourism industry, if properly planned and controlled can be a major and safe driver of GDP and job growth for the Country. (And I understand completely, your point about the laissez faire attitude of the Government ... but that is something that can be changed for the better).

Ulf Björnholm Ottosson said...

Angelo, you have many sensible arguments. I agree that CV probably can learn from the Caribbean example, and that there are practical and economic constraints to attract wealthier tourist. But I still have doubt if CV's sensitive ecology really can cope with mass tourism. It would eventually undermine it's own resource base, as tourist would not come back to an overexploited island. From what I saw of Sal, it is (sadly) a telling example.

Also - your final point on the need for the government to plan very carefully proper tourism development is important. But, as you say "if". It is a big if.

Angelo said...

Hi Ulf,

Happy to see your response. I realize that you've since left CV and are on to other things. I think we are actually in agreement. There is a limit to how far you can take mass tourism without having all kinds of problems, the ecology being one of them.

But I think CV is nowhere close to that limit. I base my thinking on the experiences of other mass tourism markets where there is also a very sensitive ecology. CV is headed towards 500,000 annual visitors. It can probably handle 3 times this flow before it hits the limit of what can be handled.

The Sal experience was due to the absence of a development master-plan. They've taken the lessons and are applying it to Boa Vista and Maio. These new plans have been published in FazBem by the Tourism Development Corp of BoaVista and Maio. The thinking is superb.

Finally, there are a number of other economic developments where the CV is heading in the right direction to diversify the economy, just a bit too slowly for my liking. Plus, because they've been graduated to "middle income country" status from "lesser developed" they are being held to more rigorous standards of governance.

Checkout my other CV blog called Its total focus is on economic development rather than tourism promotion. The one big challenge that CV is having a very hard time with is establishing the economic linkages between tourism and the broader economy as well as establishing the economic linkages between the islands.

If there are any topics you'd like to see me write about please let me know. I'm trying to take over where you left off. Your blog provided excellent on-the-ground coverage of CV.