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PRÍNCIPE ISLAND, REPUBLIC OF SAO TOME & PRÍNCIPE
In 2011, South African tech entrepreneur, Mark Shuttleworth, bought Príncipe’s Bom Bom Island Resort and six concessions, including Sundy Praia. His plan was to kick-start an ambitious eco-tourism project under the name Here Be Dragons (HBD). Príncipe is the smaller of two islands that make up the Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe, 130 miles off the coast of Gabon in the Gulf of Guinea. Its dense jungle is so abundant in endemic wildlife that it’s often referred to as ‘Africa’s Galapagos’. The 4Cs — community, conservation, culture and commerce — are central to HBD’s mission.
Príncipe is no desert island; it has 7000 residents scattered throughout colourful towns and small fishing villages. Since independence from Portugal in 1975, the population has suffered from an economic downturn, and HBD hopes to use tourism to improve the lives of islanders. The concessions have been leased for 30-years, after which time HBD will give the eco-tourism lodges back to the community. Alongside developing sustainable tourism, HBD has worked with the local government to establish a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve to put laws in place to protect nature in perpetuity.
HDB’s development vision is to let Príncipe be what it’s always been — a wild rainforest. Fifteen tented villas have been built using locally sourced timber to mimic the simple fishing huts that once stood on the same spot. Each room is tucked in from the beach and surrounded by a canopy of lush forest. Besides environmental experiences, guests are encouraged to immerse themselves in Príncipe’s culture and communities.
Sundy Praia joined The Long Run in 2018 and committed to a holistic balance of the 4Cs – Conservation, Community, Culture and Commerce – as a means to contribute meaningfully to the biodiversity and the people of their local region.
Tourism is a vehicle for HBD’s environmental mission — to protect São Tomé and Príncipe’s pristine ecosystem and rainforest, which overs about 74% of the islands. Endemic species include 26 birds, including the Sao Tome grosbeak, seven amphibians, and of the 895 flora species, over 100 are unique to the islands. HBD’s Príncipe Trust Foundation (established to separate commercial and conservation activity) is expanding knowledge of the island’s biodiversity through botanical sampling, seabird surveys, coral evaluations, turtle conservation, whale watching and local education and empowerment. HBD is supporting the creation of the islands’ Biosphere Reserve through ensuring sustainable employment (as nature guides, marine guards, or through tourism). A small guest charge for activities such as hiking and turtle watching go to the Principe Foundation Trust. Other conservation projects include: Reef Check training for Príncipe‘s marine guards; the Arribada Initiative to monitor green turtles; local whale watching tours for young people.
The lease model ensures that the community is at the heart of Sundy Praia and HBD’s mission. To prepare for handing the lodges over, up-skilling and local employment is a vital part of HBD’s investment. The aim is for at least 90% of staff in all lodges to be São Tomé and Príncipe nationals; at the moment it’s 50% (HBD is the island’s largest employer after the government). HBD has also invested in community businesses. One of these is the Waste Valorisation Cooperative in Porto Real. Here, ten women support their families by producing compost from 80% of the island’s food waste and transforming waste glass into jewellery. A Conservation Leadership Program supports young conservationists through practical skills and work experience.
There isn’t a strong national identity on Príncipe, but locals are proud of the islands’ new Biosphere Reserve status. There are other areas of culture that HBD is working to revive, too. São Tomé and Príncipe has always exported cacao, but the younger generations don’t want to work in agriculture, instead prioritising office jobs. HBD hopes to revive a love for the export via a Chocolate Factory where local people can make and sell high quality, fair trade chocolate (rather than simply exporting the raw material). A sewing club is encouraging women to make handicrafts to sell in the hotels, too.
Through the tourism business (three hotels), HBD can sustain jobs, continuous training, conservation projects and local commerce. Since the project will be handed over after 30-years, financial sustainability is a priority. After a chequered start, the Fundação Príncipe Trust (FPT) is also financially stable with 47 employees – 91% of which are nationals. Since 2018, FPT has been a separate NGO entity and therefore is not held back by commercial associations and ties.