Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Forget Thailand or Peru

Destination Africa: Mozambique

Clearblue seas, an easy to approach local population, a place where tradition is still ahead of modernization and a lot safer than neighboring countries South-Africa and Zimbabwe: Mozambique might be ‘the’ African tourist destination within the next five years. And why shouldn’t it? Prices are ridiculously low compared to the UK (3 gbp for a hotel room or 25p for a meal) and there is plenty to do and see: different local cultures, colorful markets and small villages, breathtaking beaches and hundreds of small islands.

Or what do you think of impressive colonial architecture? (Vasco de Gama arrived in 1498 and the Portuguese did not leave until the country became independent in 1975). With a population of just 17 mln people (on an area roughly six times the size of England) you will not be surprised one can drive around for hours without seeing a soul. Zebra’s, giraffes and elephants are hard to miss and are – unlike in South-Africa – not restricted by gates or fences. One thing which can be said about Mozambique is that it is not commercial. Unlike its neighbors, especially South-Africa, Zimbabwe (up to a couple of years ago), Namibia or even Zambia, just a few tourists found their way into Mozambique, yet. There is no developed tourist industry, no huge hotel network and do not expect a well organized rail system or reliable cash machines. Traveling through Mozambique means going back to basic. Take enough cash with you in advance: outside the capital Maputo there are hardly any ATM’s.

Also a thing to take into account: mosquito’s, beggars and (the risk of) certain diseases travel with you all the time. Schistosomiasis (bilharzia), hepatitis, typhoid, diphtheria, tetanus, meningococcal meningitis and malaria are still common, especially in rural areas. But let this not stop you of planning to go here: it just takes a bit of preparation. Another virus which is a huge problem in Mozambique (like the whole of Africa below the Sahara) is HIV (Aids): Mozambique's official HIV/AIDS infection rate is 16%, though it's well above 20% in some areas. But these problems fade away if you visit Mozambique these days: the Portuguese pulled out virtually overnight in 1975, leaving Mozambique in a state of chaos with few educated professionals and as good as no infrastructure. Ties were established with the former USSR and East Germany and private ownership, especially for land, was replaced with state farms and cooperatives. Therefore, do not be surprised if your hotel is on Avenue de Karl Marx or your car rental company is at Stalin Square. After the country went completely bankrupt in the early 80’s a decade of civil war and destruction followed.

In 1992, peace accords finally brought a halt to this, but it took the country another five to eight years before western countries lifted their negative travel advice. Since then, people in Mozambique dare to smile again and are happy to see foreigners: their arrival proves to them the country is safe. Progress has been interrupted by natural calamities, including severe flooding in 2000 and 2001. Nevertheless, tourism is taking off, the economy is slowly but surely growing, and most observers count the country as one of Africa's rising stars. If you love diving, walking, the beach, nature, safari, culture and Africa, Mozambique is worth a visit. Do keep in mind traveling through Mozambique will cost you time, lots of time. Not just to get around, but also to get there. Except to the former ruler Portugal, there are no direct flights to the west. The easiest, cheapest and most common way is to go via Johannesburg. From there, you can take a flight to Maputo, but probably the most adventurous and exciting way is to rent a car or take a bus and let your journey of surprises and discovery begin.