Sao Tome and Principe: Two intriguing island destinations no-one can locate on a map
In Principe, the leaves are on the move. Almost every road on this island has been carved out of the jungle, and the jungle seems eager to reclaim the lost ground. Trees and brush and vines press relentlessly against the dirt edges of the roads, their leaves pushing towards the road like dogs straining at a leash.
They quiver as a tropical breeze plays over them: the flat plates of banana trees and the fringed fronds of the jacaranda, latticed leaves and leaves that resemble propellers, shield-shaped leaves and heart-shaped leaves.
There are leaves that grow from branches and leaves that sprout epiphytically from trunks; there are leafy vines that slither along the ground or drape like a veil from high branches or clamber their way eagerly up a tree trunk. There are leaves that can be pressed against your skin to leave a silvery tattoo, and leaves that will help treat malaria.
This is no ordinary jungle. The island of Principe – half of the West African nation of Sao Tome and Principe – is a Unesco-listed biosphere reserve, a place where vividly coloured kingfishers and raucous African parrots flit through the trees while turtles nest on the pristine beaches. Its natural landscapes are the major selling point for a country trying to kickstart a tourism industry. Its major drawback? That would be the fact that few people have ever heard of Sao Tome and Principe, let alone know where it is.
Paradoxically, however, that drawback may be precisely what draws a particular breed of traveller. Well-heeled voyagers who have been there, done that, will be intrigued at the idea of exploring a place that no one can locate on a map. These two compact islands floating off the coast of West Africa – 300 kilometres from Gabon, 200 kilometres from each other – constitute one of the world's smallest countries, with a population of about 200,000, only 7000 of whom live on Principe. The islands were uninhabited until the 1500s, when the Portuguese began using them as a watering spot for their trans-Atlantic slave ships. They later farmed cacao, coffee and sugar here; today's inhabitants are the descendants of the plantation workers.
The country gained independence in 1975, when a newly democratic Portugal divested itself of its colonies. (Portugal's national carrier, TAP, is the only European airline to offer direct flights to Sao Tome.) For decades, nothing much happened in the tiny nation – until Mark Shuttleworth came along and decided that a sustainable tourism industry was the country's best hope for escaping poverty.
For most countries, luring tourists is a slow process that usually starts with a group of trailblazers. In the up-and-coming destination of Nicaragua, for instance, the first on the scene were the surfers who came for the towering waves found along the country's Pacific coast. In time, they also discovered, and spread word of, the country's other attractions, including soaring volcanoes and picturesque colonial towns. As visitor interest grew, so did investment in infrastructure such as hotels. Nicaragua is now steadily increasing its visitor count, although it still has a long way to before catching up with better-known Central American countries such as Costa Rica.
For Sao Tome and Principe, that process has been a lot more precipitate, thanks to South African billionaire Mark Shuttleworth. The software developer, who also became the first African in space when he bought passage on a Soyuz rocket, has dedicated himself to helping the country develop in a sustainable manner. After consulting experts in design, forestry and agriculture, he bought one of Sao Tome's few existing hotels and has recently opened three others on Principe.
Shuttleworth has also created his own supply chain, which starts with gardens and orchards to grow the produce used in the hotels' restaurants and spas, and stretches all the way to recycling facilities to deal with the waste, including a craft studio that makes jewellery from trash. Shuttleworth's investment has been estimated at between US$95 million and US$135 million. One local tells me that eight of out 10 jobs on Principe are thanks to Shuttleworth.
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