Visitor numbers to Cape Verde are continuing to grow year-on- year but there are fears that the focus on all-inclusive hotels restricts the development of local restaurants, cafes and other tourist sector businesses. The industry is the most important part of the economy, accounting for about a fifth of gross domestic product and has helped to transform Cape Verde into a middle-income country.
The country has many of the same attractions as other island destinations in the form of sun, sea and sand, but its location and climate give it warm weather year-round, while its political stability encourages foreign investment.
Although there are some hiking routes, far too little has been done to promote the stunning mountainous landscape of the island interiors. The varied sea life, including nesting turtles, offers another attraction. The windy conditions for large parts of the year can deter some, although this is an advantage for some sports. Flights take about five hours from much of western Europe and there is little jet lag because it lies in the same time zone as the U.K.
Macauhub reported in late February that the country’s hotels hosted 765,000 visitors in 2018, with 4.9 million bed nights. These represent 6.8 percent and 7.4 percent increases respectively on the same period in 2017. Bed nights are the standard industry measurement of accommodation volume and simply refer to the number of nights’ accommodation per person.
The government hopes to boost visitor numbers above one million by 2020. The United Nations World Tourism Organization forecasts that the number of tourists visiting African countries will increase from 54 million in 2015 to 134 million by 2030 but there is certainly a lot of interest in Cape Verde specifically. Research by the Global Travel Search Index found that Cape Verde was the second most popular tourism destination search for Google users in 2017, behind Barcelona but ahead of Amsterdam.
More than 80 percent of all visitors come from Europe. More tourists come from the U.K. than anywhere else, with British visitors accounting for 30.2 percent of all bed nights, followed by Germany (12.1 percent), the Netherlands (11.2 percent), France (8.1 percent) and Portugal (7.4 percent).
It will be particularly interesting to see how well the country can target the Brazilian market. With a common language and flight times as short as four hours, Latin America’s most populous country could prove an important source of visitors.
Having attracted the attention of big international tour operators, including Thomas Cook and TUI, the number of hotel rooms in the country nearly doubled in recent years, from 5,891 in 2010 to 11,435 in 2016.
In November 2018, Riu Hotels opened the 70-million-euro (MOP636 million) Riu Palace Boavista, its fifth hotel in the country and third on the island of Boa Vista. The five-star hotel has 505 rooms, giving Riu a total of 3,480 rooms in the country, with about 2,500 employees and 235,000 visitors a year.
“Cape Verde has been a unique experience. We faced all kinds of logistical and infrastructure challenges there, which we tackled using our accumulated experience and Cape Verde’s own determination to develop its tourist industry,” said Luis Riu, the chief executive of Riu Hotels. “We can now say that we have an excellent professional team, who more than make up for their lack of experience with their enthusiasm and appetite for learning.”
Macau businessman David Chow is still keen to develop a tourist complex at Gamboa and the Islet of Santa Maria at a cost of USD250 million (MOP2.02 billion). It is to include a hotel, casino and convention center but although construction work is underway, progress on the venture has stalled since it was unveiled in 2015.
The mayor of Praia Óscar Santos announced in February that an 85-million-euro hotel complex would be developed at Gamboa beach but said that it was not the same project as David Chow’s scheme. It is being financed by Cape Verdean and British investors, although they have not been named.
The industry could benefit from some accommodation diversification, as it is currently overly dependent on big hotel chains. A total of 89.3 percent of tourist bed nights were spent in hotels, with bed and breakfasts attracting 3 percent, tourist villages 2.9 percent and guest houses 2.6 percent. However, smaller establishments are more likely to be locally-owned and so a higher proportion of the revenue they generate stays in the country. Most of the managers at the big hotels are Europeans.
Many hotel visitors stay on an all-inclusive basis and so spend relatively little money in shops, cafes and restaurants outside their hotels. Flights to the islands are expensive for independent tourists who do not want a package experience, partly because the holiday companies that fly tourists to the all-inclusive resorts are reluctant to supply visitors for independent hotels.
There is also some scope to spread visitors over a wider area, as the island of Sal attracted 55.1 percent of all bed nights and Boa Vista 36.3 percent in the first nine months of 2018.
The government has identified the cruise ship market as one of the best methods of achieving this. In August, the national port operator, Enapor, launched a tender for the contract to project manage the construction of São Vicente cruise terminal, including a tourist village with shops and restaurants.
The terminal, which will have two berths, is expected to cost 29 million euros to develop, of which the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries’ Fund for International Development will provide 16 million euros, with the Orio Fund of the Netherlands providing 10 million euros in donor support. The Cape Verdean government will contribute the remaining 3 million euros.
The government has changed the focus of its revenue raising activities. In January, it introduced an airport security fee of up to 3,400 escudos (MOP280) on visitors arriving by plane in January, but simultaneously lifted its short stay visa requirements on visitors from the European Economic Area, which comprises the 28 member states of the European Union, plus four other European states. Visitors to Cape Verde from the EEA no longer need visas for stays of up to 30 days.
It remains to be seen whether the changes will be revenue positive for government finances, but the big winners from the switch will be cruise ship visitors who will not be required to pay either fee.
OBSTACLES TO EXPANSION
One of the biggest shadows over the archipelago’s tourism prospects in recent years was the fate of Cabo Verde Airlines. There was some doubt over the national carrier’s ability to sustain its operations but its internal flight services have now been spun off. Given Cape Verde’s location and the domination of the state-owned airline in connecting the islands to the rest of the world, its financial health is of huge concern.
A subsidiary of Icelandair Group, Loftleidir, announced at the end of February that it had bought a 51 percent stake in Cabo Verde Airlines via its offshoot Loftleidir Cabo Verde. Apart from operating services between European airports and the archipelago it hopes to develop the islands as a hub connecting different continents. The government of Cape Verde expects to sell its remaining 49 percent equity in the airline at a later date.
The government has tried to promote a positive environmental image, including by aiming to become one of the first countries in the world to rely on renewables for 100 percent of its power generation. As well as being environmentally sustainable, such an approach acts as a good tourist sector marketing strategy.
However, local NGOs have also complained about the build-up of rubbish, particularly disused plastic, on the shores. The government has drawn up plans to ban single use plastic bags but a large proportion of the plastic on the country’s beaches comes from other countries. There have also been reports in the country that sand has been removed from many beaches to sell to the construction industry.
There has been some concern over many years that international hotel chains were benefitting too much from the growing industry and the Cape Verdean government too little. At the same time, the industry places some strain on domestic power and water supplies. According to press reports in the country, only 58 percent of the population of Boa Vista has access to a modern toilet. Moreover, some hotel employees live in informal housing because travel times are too great for them to commute from their homes.
At the Forum de l’Investissement Hôtelier Africain conference in Marrakesh in February, one industry executive remarked that “economic stability and growth, combined with improved international links, could present a golden scenario,” but warned “water supply, electricity distribution, internet connection and road networks remain the major constraints for further expansion of the sector.”