Is an increase in tourism a good thing? Fogo follows hot on the heels of the likes of Barcelona and Venice to question whether an increase in tourism is to be encouraged. It is one of the islands that makes up the archipelago nation of Cape Verde, a country that receives around 20% of its GDP from tourism. Approximately 22% of employment in Cape Verde is in the tourism sector. Fogo’s stats are considerably lower and when I visited back in November, I found that trouble was brewing in paradise.
Currently, it’s estimated that Fogo receives about 8000 visitors a year. While Sal and Boavista welcome international visitors with open arms and embrace resorts which wouldn’t look out of place in the Canary Islands, Fogo has so far resisted mass tourism. That’s not to say it’s unattractive. The cobbled streets of its main town São Filipe have caught the eye of UNESCO while a volcanic caldera criss-crossed by hiking trails and littered with fledgling grape vines dominates what’s left of this tiny scrap of land. Fogo is the kind of place you go when you want to escape the hustle and bustle of your life back home, the kind of place where hours pass before you smile to yourself and acknowledge you’ve done absolutely nothing.
But plans are afoot to increase the visitor count to 200000 people per year. The timescale is unclear, but is unlikely to be gradual if those pushing for change have their way. Those 200000 visitors would of course require lodging and meals, as well as services like electricity, water, internet connectivity and rubbish disposal. These services are already stretched on Fogo and it is unclear who will provide for such expansion nor who will foot the bill. I was told that the mayor of Fogo had gone to Italy on a fact-finding mission to explore the possibility of opening a similar waste disposal facility yet the project would operate on a scale the municipality could ill afford.
Even building new hotels brings its own challenges. Most hotels on Fogo are small, offering just a handful of rooms. Sand in quantity is vital if construction of new properties is to begin and it’s a commodity in short supply on the island. The few black sand beaches that exist have already been plundered and seasonal rains that might have washed new sand down off the volcano’s slopes failed to materialise. I was told that any new building work taking place currently has to import sand by sea from the Sahara via countries like Mauritania. This comes at a significant cost. One builder I spoke to quoted a price of €28 a tonne just for shipping; once the cost of the sand itself was factored in, that figure rose to €70 a tonne.
Even if development was financially viable, such development would drastically alter the character of this island. Sleepy Fogo’s signature attraction is its languid lifestyle. Its cobbled streets so far have escaped the ugly blanket of tarmac that blights such roads in other parts of the country. Wood and plaster age gently in the sun, while islanders perch on stone steps as they chat about the day’s business. But colonial-era sobrado mansions stand empty awaiting repair, hoping to attract an investor before irreversible dereliction sets in.
To run efficient mass tourist hotels on Fogo would be to change the way things are done. The introduction of tens of thousands more impatient incomers rushing to tick off the sights before their plane departs couldn’t fail to upset the balance of a place which beats to is own, proudly African, rhythm. Of course, economically, development makes sense. The financial gain to the island via increased spending and job creation would benefit many, but would the cost to society and the environment be worth it?