Mozambique village draws divers
17.08.2005 - 01:10
By Ed Stoddard
PONTA D'OURO, Mozambique (Reuters) - Warm waters, colourful corals and unspoilt beaches as far as the eye can see: the allure of Mozambique's Ponta d'Ouro is obvious.
Transformed from an impoverished seaside village into a bustling tourist resort in just a few years, Ponta d'Ouro is emblematic of Mozambique's drive to nurture its tourist industry as a way of fighting poverty.
"If the tourists didn't come here we would have no work, we would just be fishing," said John Simero, a muscular 17-year-old who earns cash by washing and caring for scuba divers' gear.
Simero is among scores of people who have found new jobs in Ponta, but the tourist-fuelled boom in this tiny village in one of the world's poorest countries has a darker side.
The bulk of the local jobs are unskilled and poorly paid. Investment has come almost exclusively from South Africa, which also provides the resort with the most of its skilled workers such as skippers and dive masters.
Some residents fear the tourists may harm the fragile environment and say that Ponta is already losing the rustic charm that drew visitors in the first place.
"Ponta is a lot more commercialised now. In a few years it will be like the beaches south of Durban," said diving boat skipper Shane Oberholzer, referring to a heavily developed strip on South Africa's coast.
"I wouldn't want to be here in 5 years time," said Oberholzer, who has been working in the area for 11 years.
Ponta d'Ouro was a popular getaway for the urban elite under Mozambique's former Portuguese rulers. It fell into a state of disrepair during the civil war which broke out after Mozambique gained independence in 1975.
When the government and rebels signed a peace deal in 1992, intrepid divers from across the border began to drift back.
To their delight, they discovered pristine coral reefs teeming with marine life.
A dive into this enchanted world reveals exquisite coral patterns and shimmering schools of multi-coloured fish. Sinister-looking moray eels peer out from small caverns while huge whale sharks glide silently past.
On busy weekends, a steady stream of dive boats bounce across the bay and there are plans to build a luxury hotel and golf course.
Divers are generally respectful of the environment but the sheer numbers on Ponta's reefs mean that some inadvertent damage will be done.
A study two years ago by Conservation International and the United Nations said that a surge in global tourism was a key threat to ecologically sensitive areas, with coastal developments highlighted as an area of particular concern.
METAMORPHOSIS BY THE SEA
Ponta d'Ouro is already changing fast.
Five years ago, there was no electricity or cellphone reception. A few restaurants and shops catered to the tourists and the road on the South African side of the border was a sand track for the last 100 kms (60 miles) before the frontier.
Three years ago, that road was paved by the South African government and the tourists soon flooded in.
Ponta d'Ouro has since been hooked up to the national power grid and a cellphone tower has been built. The road on the Mozambican side of the border is still dirt but cafes, curio shops and new houses have sprung up in the village.
"I retired here 12 years ago but I'm so busy now that I may have to retire again," said Manuel Pereira, a shop owner.
Others are nostalgic for the past.
"It's good for business and my shop is doing well because of the influx of tourists. But I came here 11 years ago to get away from everything," said Suzi Steyn, who sells curios.
With large numbers of visitors and workers from Mozambique's southern neighbour, Ponta d'Ouro sometimes seems like a piece of South Africa. Afrikaans -- the Dutch-derived language of South Africa's original settlers -- is spoken everywhere and the rand currency is accepted by everyone.
Mozambican workers are also drawn to the village, some coming from the capital Maputo, 120 kms (75 miles) to the north.
"The money in Maputo is small. I make more here helping the divers," said 31-year-old Jovas.
Ponta's new wealth has also attracted predators.
Road blocks have appeared on the sandy road leading to the border and are manned by Mozambican police looking for a bribe.
"This is the price of development -- corrupt police," snorted one disgusted South African tourist at a barricade.