Photo: Matemo Island women village

Traditionally garbed locals walk along Mozambique's northern coastline, part of which lies in protected Quirimbas National Park.

Photograph by Sergio Ramazzotti, Parallelozero/Aurora Photos

By Jay Walljasper

From the November-December 2010 issue of National Geographic Traveler

(Score: 69) So far, so good, sums up the assessments of sustainable-travel experts who have journeyed along the remote north coast of this African nation by the Indian Ocean. They roll out the superlatives to describe the tawny sands, turquoise waters, coral islands, tropical woodlands, and centuries-old Portuguese forts found here—and the promising initial steps toward a tourist economy that could benefit local people.

Yet the problems and pressures mounting in this northernmost province of Mozambique are daunting. The area is extremely poor even by African standards and has suffered repeated economic blows when foreign fishing ships have depleted fish catches, diseases have crippled the cashew and coconut crops, and erosion has drained fertile crop soils. Life expectancy is just 37.8 years, according to government figures, and almost 30 percent of children die before age five.

Such stark statistics suggest that any tourist development should rightfully benefit local people—and that’s what happens at Quirimbas National Park, opened in 2002 with French financial aid and technical assistance from the World Wildlife Fund.

“The plan is for [the park] to benefit the people and become economically sustainable,” explains Kwasi Agbley, a tourism specialist working with USAID in Mozambique. “That way it will continue after the foreign funding is done.”

Quirimbas park covers some 3,000 square miles and encompasses 11 tropical islands and swaths of forest along a 56-mile stretch of coastline. Those islands, rich in biodiversity, are showing up on the must-visit lists of divers, birders, windsurfers—and everyone who has dreamed of experiencing the natural rhythms of Africa.“You get on these islands and you are out of this world,” exclaims Agbley. “You can feel time stand still.”

Many of the park’s guides, staff, and volunteer corps of rangers come from area villages. Agbley credits park officials with reviving fish populations by creating marine reserves, preserving forests and protecting elephants by curtailing illegal lumber operations, preventing deadly brush fires by educating villagers, and continuing the protection of local ecosystems.

Richard Tapper, a biodiversity consultant and director of a green-business group in London, is thrilled at the promise of Quirimbas. “Small eco-resorts are being built in local style. The birdlife is incredible,” he says. And 20 percent of all user fees are distributed back to the communities.

Yet, he points out, the park draws only some 3,000 visitors a year, in part because the closest major international airport is 600 miles away over sometimes bumpy roads. “The amount of money tourism contributes is very small compared to the size of the need.”

Still, Tapper sees virtues in only gradual development of the destination. “There are significant issues of water resources and waste handling that need addressing before more visitors come,” he says. “If we open the park up too fast, it won’t hold the same attraction for tourists in the long term.” And sustainability, by its very definition, is about the long term.

Contributing editor Jay Walljasper writes about sustainability issues.

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