Quirimbas: A rising star of Africa

Facing the island nation of Madagascar, in the Channel of Mozambique, just a few miles off the coast of mainland Africa, the Quirimbas Archipelago suffered from the sudden departure of the Portuguese colonists in 1975. The country descended into civil war, and whilst this periphery managed to avoid the same fate, the local economy took collapsed. It had relied heavily on the Portuguese trade in spices, ivory and slaves; and when this dried up overnight, and with the civil war of the mainland (the only access point to the islands), the tourist industry was destroyed. The population of the pristine coral island of Ibo, the largest in the chain that stretches for over 320 km, plummeted from 37,000 in the late 1990s, to just 3,500 in 2006.

Despite these statistics, the Archipelago’s fortunes are changing. A UNESCO world heritage site, and with the southernmost 11 islands declared as a national park, this stunningly beautiful area was always going to be the catalyst in Mozambique’s recovery. The melting pot of African, Portuguese and Arabic influences (due to middle-eastern traders sailing down the coast) produce a rich and diverse culture, and coupled with sandy beaches, coral reefs and warm seas, it is a perfect place to situate an idyllic resort. Kevin Record saw this potential when he first visited the island of Ibo in 1994; and five years later, he bought an old Portuguese villa near the sea, and turned it into the luxury ‘Ibo island lodge’, opening in 2006. It very quickly became a very important economic resource to the island, keeping 40 people in full time employment, whilst buying fresh seafood from local fisherman and encouraging more foreign investment to the area, as well as the all-important tourists. Kevin believes that “day-to-day operations benefit up to half of the population”, which is crucial as many residents were living a poverty stricken subsistence lifestyle just a decade ago.There was very little work for the locals before the lodge opened, just a small amount of maritime harvesting from the coral, and a very small number of public sector jobs, but now, the tourist industry is thriving. Ex-fisherman, Chande, demonstrated how he pulled himself out of the poverty he previously experienced by embracing the new industry. He has become the captain of an island safari put on for guests, and is directly employed by the lodge. His dhow, or boat, called Vagabunduis, which is ideal for the hotel, as the traditional Arabic design has “changed little from the days when (it) first arrived with Arabian traders centuries ago”, adding to the idyllic charms of the islands with its single triangular sail. This little exercise has been so popular that the lodge has ordered another two boats to be made from the local mangrove wood, spreading the newfound wealth of the island further into the local economy. The lodge also helps fund community projects, such as schools and doctors, which are all important in the development of Mozambique as a whole.

The locals in many of the industries on the island of Ibo have benefited massively from the wealth of the tourists; with direct employment in the luxury resorts, people selling services and souvenirs to the foreigners, as well as people involved in the fishing industry (still the largest employer on the island) being able to sell to the hotel kitchens and diversify into setting up snorkelling schools. A plethora of people are benefiting, but is this sustainable? This is very important to the local people, as they will want to continue reaping the benefits of the industry, without destroying the very things which are attracting them. The local community project manager Anne Brookes says that “sustainability is of primary importance”, focusing on both the ecology and the community.The local education projects funded by tourism provides people with skills to be able to have better prospects, adding to the local economy as they can set up trading companies and further exploit tourism by learning foreign languages. To keep parts of the coral pristine for the tourists, 10 ‘no take zones’ have been set up, where no fishing is allowed to occur; and illegal fishing is kept in check, and the only boats used by the Ibo island lodge are the sail powered dhow’s, which are environmentally friendly and what the tourists want to see. Other protected areas include the beaches on the island of Vamisi that provides space for approximately 100 nests of endangered Green Turtles, funding for which has only come about since the recent tourist boom. “We can’t support mass-market holidaymaking here, nor do we want to” says Anne. “What we want is to bring in visitors who spend a lot but have a limited environmental footprint”.

“Sustainable tourism is one way to achieve development in the Quirimbas, but everyone has different problems to contend with” says a local government official; “For us, food security remains a big issue- were really concentrating on child malnutrition”. Clearly, the economic development has not yet reached everyone and there is always a “balancing act” between the needs of the industry and that of the local people; but these new lodges that are being developed on the islands are sure to help lift the population out of subsistence-level poverty in years to come.

Contributed by Chris Cockerill

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