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Looking Beyond Oil And Gas

Equatorial Guinea open for tourism business

David Browne (in London)  Oct 10, 2010

Equatorial Guinea is a small country on the west coast of Africa, sandwiched between Cameroon to the north and Gabon to the south. It's rich in natural resources and most visitors to the former Spanish colony are oil men and traders in petrochemicals. But the government wants to change that.

A seminar of business people in London, organized by Cemac Market Opportunity (CMO) London was told that Equatorial Guinea is looking beyond oil and gas and is open for tourism business. The seminar was the first ever event organized in London to promote the Cemac region, consisting of six states of central Africa, Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon, Gabon, Central African Republic, Chad, and Republic of Congo.

Equatorial Guinea is a beautiful country with many interesting sites and beautiful beaches, but so far there is little tourism information to assist in planning a vacation. The country has dramatic unspoiled landscape and a huge variety of wildlife. According to the US State Department, facilities for tourism are limited but growing.

"Our country is benefiting from oil and gas exploration and investment, and this improves the national budget. But oil alone does not make the population rich," said Minister of Industry and Energy, Gabriel M. Obiang Lima.

Mainly as a result of government revenues from oil and gas, transport infrastructure has been improved over recent years. Roads and airports have helped open up the interior of the country. The principal mainland city is Bata, but the capital and main port, Malabo is on an offshore island.

New hotels are being built, in part to service the influx of oil workers and traders, and a new golf course is planned outside the city of Malabo. The Sofitel Malabo President Palace is a luxury hotel located in the historic heart of the capital, just 10 minutes from the airport. It's a gem of colonial Spanish architecture, converted from an 18th century cloister.

The development of infrastructure, especially roads and airports, is a major step towards making the country more accessible and attractive to visitors. The aim of the London seminar was to raise awareness of the opportunities for investment and trade with Equatorial Guinea, a mysterious but energetic part of west central Africa. Kenya Airways added Equatorial Guinea to its international network in 2009. Iberia offers direct flights to Malabo from Madrid with connections from London and other major international airports. Air France has direct flights to Equatorial Guinea from Paris. Delta was to have started a direct service from Atlanta, but it's been put on hold because of financial pressures.

Equatorial Guinea is the fastest-growing economy in the Central African region and a leading player in the CEMAC. Mr. Obiang Lima said the government of Equatorial Guinea was working very hard to diversify trade and encourage more people to visit. Most visitors are, of course, connected with the oil and gas industry or natural history exploration and film-making. But that's set to change as the government is sponsoring moves to promote up-scale adventure tourism.

"We want to reduce our dependency on oil and gas. We have so much more to offer, and it only takes a little imagination to appreciate that we have a land of opportunity for natural tourism," the minister told the business leaders gathered in London. "Our country may be difficult to locate, and it is unusual in being the only African country where Spanish is an official language," he said.

Mr. Obiang Lima speaks with a Spanish drawl and could be mistaken for a politician from South or Central America rather than the heart of Central West Africa. He is the son of the president of Equatorial Guinea and tours the world promoting investment opportunities in his country. He spoke at length to traders and businessmen gathered at the London seminar organised to raise awareness of opportunities for investment and trade in Equatorial Guinea.

The minister said Equatorial Guinea, like many African countries, had suffered from poor public relations and media treatment. "Much press reporting is negative, and covers only conflict, crime, hunger. But it surprises people when they visit. All I ask is that you come with an open mind."

In the late-1990s, American companies helped discover the country's oil and natural gas resources. US oil companies such as Exxon Mobil, Marathon, and Amarada Hess have a strong presence in Equatorial Guinea's industrial scene and the country's products are contributing to the global energy supply.

There is an open investment regime and the country is part of the Central African Economic and Monetary Union (CEMAC). Equatorial Guinea is now working to serve as a pillar of stability and security in its region of West Central Africa. The country will host the 2011 Summit of the African Union.

One of the great benefits of oil revenues is that modern roads have been built in major towns and along key routes around the country, which is important for access to potential tourist attractions. On Bioko Island there are breathtaking views from the volcanic mountains, pristine beaches, and forests inhabited by endangered primates.

Luba is the second largest town of Bioko and is a good base for visiting some of the nicest beaches in the country, including the beautiful Arena Blanca. There are several small fishing villages and hiking trails to explore.

The town of Bata on the mainland is a marvelous old colonial settlement, which is developing into a modern city as a result of the influx of oil money. The Lonely Planet guide names Equatorial Guinea's Monte Alen national park as a "hidden treasure."

The trade seminar was attended by Equatorial Guinea's Ambassador in London, Augustin Nze Nfumu. "I welcome this initiative to promote this region of Africa," he said, "My country is not just what you read in newspapers. In the western world, Africa is known for hunger, disease, and misery. But this is not the whole story. A welcome awaits anyone who seeks adventure.

"We are not a closed country, we are open for business including tourism. The African continent is rich in natural assets such as forest and wildlife. We are promoting opportunities for safaris and tours to discover the landscape."

The main religion in Equatorial Guinea is Christianity, a legacy of almost 200 years of Spanish rule. It's one of smallest nations in Africa, with a population of less than one million, though this is boosted by thousands of foreigners working in the oil and gas industry. According to UNESCO Equatorial Guinea has the highest adult literacy country in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The country is a key ally of the United States in West Africa. Barack Obama posed for photographs with President Obiang recently at a reception in New York.

The US State Department has recently awarded a contract to build a new US Embassy compound in Malabo, on a 12-acre site gifted to the USA by the government of Equatorial Guinea in 2006.

Equatorial Guinea open for tourism business
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