São Vicente Journal: Development Projects Start, Stop and Sputter, Making Residents Anxious for Long-Awaited Prosperity

by Ron Bernthal

Colorful fishing boats line the beach at Sao Pedro, on the island of São Vicente. Traditional fishing villages in Cape Verde are ripe for tourism development. (photos by Ron Bernthal)

Césaria Evora, Cape Verde’s “Barefoot Diva,” often sang about her home, the stunningly beautiful island of São Vicente, one of the nine inhabited islands that make up the nation of Cape Verde, located 300 miles off the African coast. When Ms. Evora died in December, 2011, at the age of 70, all of Cape Verde mourned, as did much of Europe, where she spent the last months of her life.

Growing up, Ms. Evora experienced the ubiquitous poverty of Cape Verde, and island nation with few natural resources and high unemployment. It saddened her that almost 70 percent of the country’s skilled workers had to leave their homes for work in other countries, disrupting family lives and cultural ties. For many Cape Verdeans, now living abroad in Europe or the United States, sending money back to their island families is a monthly ritual, but they are hoping that current tourism development projects will finally bring prosperity to the isolated archipelago. For the residents São Vicente, and on the other islands where overseas investors have bet on the future, that day of salvation, which looked so promising just a few years ago, has not yet arrived, and some wonder if it ever will.

The picturesque city of Mindelo on São Vicente has few jobs, but perfect weather and affordable ocean-view second home sites.

Although the official language of Cape Verde is Portuguese, the language of the streets is Creole, a mixture of Portuguese and West African tribal languages brought to the islands five-hundred years ago when Cape Verde became a major slave market for the hundreds of thousands of African slaves brought here before being sold by traders and loaded onto large ships for the Atlantic crossing.

With its band of sun-drenched islands assembled in a “)” shape, Cape Verde lies 300 miles off the coast of Senegal, bathed under a warm sun for 360 days per year. In the past two decades the spectacular white or black-sand beaches of the islands have attracted a few international hotel chains, as well as middle class Europeans looking for inexpensive second homes in a destination that offers plenty of sea and sand only 4-6 hours flying time from London, Berlin or Zurich.

In the mid-2000′s the pace of tourism development accelerated, as residents of Western Europe, flush with cash from booming economies, sought exotic vacation spots. Until about 2008, along Cape Verde’s once virgin beaches, and in the empty dry hills behind them, the outlines of new streets were bulldozed into the sand, and grey concrete foundations for new hotels and residential villas offered a promising future for local residents.

In Santa Maria, on the island of Sal, where tourism was once confined to a few blocks within the center of town, ribbons of new asphalt now stretch for miles into the flat desert-like terrain surrounding the town, but the number of cement trucks and construction vehicles that had once moved noisily throughout the island, leaving sun-splashed mini residential communities and hotels in their wake, has slowed considerably following Europe’s economic recession. Although Sal has more than 3,000 guest rooms to offer visitors, it is not a great number compared to the Canary Islands or Madeira. Still, it is a good start for a destination that hopes to emulate its Spanish competitors, at least after the investors return.

If the transformation of these out-of-the-way, volcanic islands into a major tourist destination succeeds, it will be because the Atlantic Ocean is the backdrop here, and ocean view prices for land on Cape Verde are much lower than in southern Europe and the Caribbean. For thousands of sun starved northern Europeans, and for more and more Americans priced out of Hawaii or coastal California, the lure of Cape Verde’s relatively affordable water-view property will become harder to resist.

In 1991 there were only 19,000 tourist arrivals into Cape Verde. In 2015 the number of visitors to the islands was expected to reach one-million, but the recession in Europe is slowing the pace of long-haul pleasure trips. Traditionally, many Cape Verdeans went to Portugal or the United States to find employment, their work ethic, and experience in the fishing industries specifically, helping them establish long term positions in Lisbon, or in the coastal towns south of Boston. Cape Verde, with a population of about 510,000, ranks among the world’s countries with the highest emigration rates, but with the promise of expanding tourism and second-home communities on islands, the migration pattern is slowly reversing. New hotels, restaurants, and construction projects have brought more jobs to Cape Verde, and many Cape Verdeans having returned home in the past five years.

Romantic view of Mindelo harbor from a room in the Hotel Sodade. Future visitors to São Vicente island will stay in trendy, new resort properties or residential condos overlooking beaches outside of town.

Paulo Abu-Raya grew up in the port city of Mindelo, on the island of São Vicente. Mindelo is a poor but beautiful city with a charming, 19th-century downtown and a scenic, deepwater harbor that serviced merchant ships in the 19th century. During its entire history, however, São Vicente’s rocky hillsides and extremely dry conditions meant that it was difficult to sustain itself with no natural resources or local manufacturing. For São Vicente, as well as some of the other islands, the ever-present sun, the laid back atmosphere and relatively inexpensive real estate, is spurring a small but growing tourism and second home market.

In 2008, just when tourism development on the island began to take off, at least in the blueprint stage, Ary Abu-Raya left Boston and returned home, to Mindelo, opening a real estate office in the center of town with his brother, Paulo. In those days, Mr. Abu-Raya and his brother, both in their early 30′s, took overseas buyers around the island, showing them everything from charming Portuguese colonial homes with harbor views for 250,000 Euros (about $326,000), to large tracts of pristine beachfront property a few minutes outside of town. The Cape Verde government makes it easy for non-residents to purchase land here for residential or commercial use, and while the infrastructure on some of the islands is not yet ready for mass tourism, it is hard not to notice the major development projects that have already started on São Vicente.

Concrete foundations for second home sites with ocean views are sprouting on São Vicente, although the pace of development has slowed down because of economic pressures in Europe.

One morning during my visit I took a self-guided tour of the island, visiting an area called Baia das Gatas, a beautiful beachfront property where a five star hotel resort and residences, Fortim Mindelo, part of the well known Nikki Beach brand, was under development, along with an Ernie Els-designed PGA golf course. Nearby, the concrete shells of vacation homes protruded from the dry, rugged hillsides overlooking the Atlantic. On another part of the island a company called Sao Pedro Development is almost finished constructing a new townhouse community with more than 6,000 residences.

The other part of this story, of course, is that development projects on São Vicente and the other islands are not being completed as quickly as Cape Verdeans had hoped. Many of the tourism projects I saw on São Vicente, including Fortim, and on other islands have stopped construction before they were completed. With the recession in Europe sapping overseas investment funds for many projects, legal issues causing some firms to temporarily halt constructions, and lack of confidence among potential vacationers in Europe and the U.S., real estate projects in Cape Verde are stopping, starting, or sputtering along, leaving residents wondering if the excitement of just four-five years ago was real, or a tease.

Orésimo Silveira is a well-known figure on São Vicente. A spry and vibrant gentleman in his 70′s, with deep-set eyes and a frizzy gray beard, he helped lead Cape Verde’s independence movement from Portugal, becoming the Cape Verdean ambassador to their former colonial overseer following independence in 1975. “Large scale development plans have been underway on São Vicente for the past five years, and there are lots of investors still coming in to look around, but big changes will not happen overnight, there is still a lot of ground to cover, ” said Dr. Silveira.

Orésimo Silveira, a resident of São Vicente, helped lead Cape Verde to independence from Portugal in 1975. He says that the local economy will benefit by increased tourism, but it will not happen right away.

The terrain on São Vicente is typical of Cape Verde, stunning but raw. These desperately dry islands have suffered drought for what seems like centuries, and fresh water is scarce and expensive. Desalination plants help somewhat, as do wind mills, which catch the ocean breezes and create electrical power for deep wells. If the islands expect to keep building luxury resorts and year-round housing units for the overseas market, however, the water supply, as well as the fragile electricity service, will need to be upgraded in order to keep up with the additional amenities that big-time destinations need… gas stations, shops, supermarkets, golf courses, spas, and easily accessible high speed Wi-Fi. The Cape Verde government is presently working with overseas firms to develop large solar and wind farms on the islands of Sal and Santiago.

The Cape Verdeans, descendants of African slaves and 17th century seafarers from Europe, seem to be both patient and anxious as they wait for all the large scale development projects to come to fruition, and for the changes in their lifestyle that will surely result. “We are a mix of cultures here on São Vicente,” said Sueli Duarte, 27, a teacher who works with children from Mindelo’s poorest families. “It is sad that so many of our citizens must leave the island to work overseas, it is bad for the psyche. If the economy can be improved on the island, many more people would return from Europe and the U.S. to work here, and live with their extended families, in their own culture.”

Sueli Duarte (far left) teaches school in Mindelo, on island of São Vicente.

When I left São Vicente for my short flight to the island of Sal, I noticed the new international terminal building at the small, San Pedro Airport, which allows the facility to now handle overseas cargo and passenger flights directly from Europe, and even from Brazil, Cape Verde’s Portuguese-speaking trading and cultural partner. This will help to increase passenger arrivals into São Vicente and spur additional commercial investment.

For the island of Sal, which has been receiving direct overseas flights for 20 years, mass tourism has been the island’s economic engine for decades, and Sal is poised to host even larger numbers of visitors. The island’s salt ponds were first harvested in the 15th century, but that ended in the early 1900′s and today most of Sal is hot, dry, and flat, with starkness reminiscent of the American southwest desert. Since jets began ferrying tourists to the first beachfront hotels here, Sal has earned a reputation as a pleasant, care-free island with plenty of excellent fishing, windsurfing, and scuba diving, an inexpensive holiday for middle-class British tourists needing to escape the U.K’s dreary winter weather.

Club-Hotel Riu, on the island of Sal, is a popular destination for European visitors seeking sun and sea vacation in Cape Verde. The Riu hotel chain has opened additional properties in the country.

The busy, but quiet, ambience of Sal, however, was changing dramatically until a few years ago. The expanse of desert-like terrain near the tourist town of Santa Maria is cluttered with construction equipment, cranes, and half-built condos and shopping centers. New vacation and resort communities, with names like Cotton Bay, White Sands, Calheta Bay, Paradise Beach and Murdeira Beach are sprouting up all along the wide sand beaches outside of Santa Maria. Although many new properties have already opened, others have suspended construction, waiting for the financial markets to change.

The largest island in Cape Verde, Santiago, is the country’s economic center, and Praia, its largest town, is the country’s capital. Although Santiago has two mountain ranges, lush agricultural valleys with banana plantations, and more water than the other islands, it is mostly a business destination, with few tourists electing to spend their two-week vacation in the gritty capital city.

Woman carries basket in outdoor market in Praia, capital of Cape Verde.

There are several upscale hotels in Praia, where business travelers and government workers enjoy the proximity to embassies and the parliament building, but it is in the hot and busy streets of Praia where Cape Verde’s African influence really becomes apparent. The barefoot school boys playing soccer on dirt fields; women selling clothing, fruit, music CD’s, t-shirts, and buckets of fresh fish at the outdoor market; small barbeque stands offering inexpensive fresh grilled fish and chicken that appear on the streets at sunset; and the lively and gracious nature of the Cape Verdeans bring the culture, sounds, and smells of West Africa to visitors.

It is from the government offices in Praia that the country’s plan for major tourism development is being pushed forward. With real estate marketers calling the country the “Caribbean of Europe,” and the International Monetary Fund praising its safe and liberal investment opportunities, Cape Verde has managed to maintain economic growth during Europe’s economic problems; although not at the pace everyone had been hoping for.

Travel Information:

Young girl rides her bicycle in Praia.

All visitors entering Cape Verde require a visa (approximately $50 cost), and a passport that is valid for at least six months after the travel date. For visa applications for American citizens, contact: Embassy of the Republic of Cape Verde, 3415 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington DC 20007 (Tel: (202) 965-6820; Fax (202) 965-1207).

The currency of Cape Verde is the Escudo de Cabo Verde (ECV). Rooms in small guesthouses cost $30-$60, while rates for hotel rooms range from $60-$150. You can buy lunch for $4-$6 at small, local restaurants, or $15-$25 for meals at resort restaurants, or business-style restaurants in Praia. Beverages cost $1-$2.

Until a few years ago, the only flights between the islands were with the partially government-owned airlineTACV – Cabo Verde Airlines. A relatively new, competing carrier, however, Halcyonair began flights during the summer of 2008. Several carriers, including TAP and TACV, offer direct flights from Europe to Cape Verde, and TACV operates seasonal service from Boston.

 

© Ron Bernthal – No editorial content, portions of articles, or photographs from this site may be used in any print, broadcast, or Web-based format without written permission from the author or Web site developer.

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