São Tomé e Príncipe is a small country, consisting of two main islands, São Tomé and Príncipe. The country is situated in the Gulf of Guinea in the western part of Africa. It has a total land mass of 1001 km² and approximately 180,000 inhabitants. It is a former Portuguese colony and gained independence in 1975.
At first sight there appears to be few links with The Netherlands. Historically there have been various interactions, however not always positive.
For example, at the end of the 16th century, the Dutch navy destroyed most of the existing sugar cane plantations. The Dutch West Indies Company (West-Indische Compagnie) occupied the islands in the 1640s, when the islands were a hub for the transatlantic slave trade.
On a more positive note, The Netherlands provided technical assistance to the country immediately after its independence and is currently one of the main importer of the country’s most important export product, cacao.
The country’s political structure is democratic. It has a parliament whose members are regular elected through free elections. The country’s governments are typically coalition based and there is an active opposition. The country’s president, its head of state, is directly elected. There is no censorship and human rights are observed and protected.
The islands are of volcanic origin, and are extremely fertile. There are over 700 species of plants, including more than 100 different orchid types, and more than 140 bird species. Due to its remoteness from mainland Africa, it has many endemic species. Large parts of the islands are still primary rain forests, and scientists continue to discover new species.
The islands offer beautiful beaches and comfortable accommodation. It is easy to travel by (rental) car or taxi. The connection between São Tomé and Príncipe is by boat or by plane.
The country has a rich cultural tradition. Believed to have been uninhabited at the time of discovery in the 15th century, the islands were populated during the colonial period by people from Portugal and mainland Africa and, later on, from the former Portuguese colonies, Angola, Cabo Verde and Mozambique.
Art plays an important role in the islands, with different manifestations in visual and performing arts.
The climate is tropical and humid. As a result of the islands’ topography, there are many micro-climates. In and around São Tomé city, the period from June to August is normally relatively dry, with cooler temperatures; however, there are more overcast skies than in other periods of the year.
Day light: Because the country is located on the equator, it is normally light at around 6:00 hours and dark at around 18:00 hours.
Electricity: 220 volt.
Internet: Wireless internet is available in the main hotels and certain public places. There is a optical fibre connection with mainland Africa.
Telephone: The country code is 239. Mobile numbers start with a 9, fixed numbers with a 2.There is a mobile 3G network operated by CST, the national telecommunication company. However, not all Dutch operators have roaming agreements with CST. It is possible to buy sim cards locally. A second mobile operator (Unitel from Angola) is expected to enter the market during the second half of 2014. A number of Dutch operators still (illegally) block telephone calls from The Netherlands to São Tomé e Príncipe.
Language: The official language is Portuguese. There are 3 local languages. As foreign language, French is more often spoken than English, although the number of, in particular, young people speaking English is increasing fast.
Money: The local currency is called “Dobra”. There is a fixed rate of exchange between the Dobra and Euro. One euro equals 24,500 Dobra. The euro is widely accepted as currency for payment, but change may be given in Dobra. Foreign currency can be exchanged in Dobra at banks or with money-changers who generally hang out in the centre of São Tomé city. In the latter case: check that you receive the agreed Dobra amount.
Credit/debit cards: Only a small number of hotels accept credit cards (VISA or Mastercard, not Amex or Diners). Foreign bank cards cannot be used in local cash machines. Traveller cheques are not widely accepted. It is important to check in advance whether the hotel or the rental car company accepts credit cards. You could consider prepaying accommodation or car rental by bank transfer. The best alternative is to bring along sufficient euro in cash for local expenses.
The three major hotels on São Tomé island are operated by the Portuguese Pestana Group. There are a number of smaller hotels, such as Omali Lodge Boutique Hotel, Hotel Praia, Hotel Agôsto Neto, Hotel Bigodes, Hotel Cocoa Residence and Hotel Residencia Avenida.
Accommodation in Príncipe is more limited. Omali Lodge’s sister hotel in Príncipe is the Bom Bom Island Resort. Recently, the luxurious Roça Belo Monte was opened in a converted plantation house. Príncipe also has a number of (simple) guest houses.
Safety: The islands are safe and crime rates are low. Nevertheless, the usual precautions should be taken with regard to personal belongings. Driving at night or during heavy rainfall should be avoided.
Clothes: Dress is generally informal, although more formal for official (government) business (suit and often tie). Light clothing (cotton or linen-based) is recommended. If a hiking trip is planned, please ensure that you bring appropriate clothing and shoes. Local supply is very limited.
Health: A yellow fever vaccination is normally required. However, visitors from Europe (who enter the country with direct flights from Europe) are officially exempt from this requirement. However, health officials often still request to see your yellow fever vaccination certificate. In order to avoid any discussion, it may be better to have the vaccination and show the vaccination certification upon arrival.
Malaria medication is recommended. However, malaria is nowadays quite rare and is close to being eradicated. The use of malaria medication is therefore a more precaution.
Health care and hospital facilities are basic. There are no special clinics for foreigners. It is advisable to bring a small medical kit with basic medicines, although most common medication is available in local pharmacies. However, particular medication may not be available and should therefore be brought with you. Do not forget to bring insect repellent: some persons appear to be more attractive to mosquitoes than others.
Travel insurance: Travel and medical insurance is required.
Business hours: Generally from Monday to Friday from 08:00 – 12:00 and from 15:00 – 17:30 and on Saturdays from 08:00 – 13:00. Public services: from Monday to Friday from 07:00 – 15:30.
The easiest way to obtain a visa is through the website: www.smf.st/virtualvisa/. After having completed (please ensure that the information is included) and submitted the form with the relevant documentation, an email confirmation of the application will be sent. It typically takes a couple of days before an email authorisation (electronic visa) is sent to the applicant. This email authorisation should be printed and presented to the airline upon departure and the border police upon arrival in São Tomé. The visa costs EUR 20 per person. Payment can be effected in advance by way of bank transfer (see the website) or upon arrival in cash (in which case it is important to have exact change available).
Visas can also be obtained through the Embassy of São Tomé e Príncipe in Brussels. Contact details: Av. de Tervuren, 175, B-1150 Brussels, Belgium, Phone: +32-2-7348966, Fax: +32-2-7348815, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Please note that your passport needs to be valid for 3 months after the expiry date of your visa and a return or onward ticket is required. The border authorities can request that you show that you have sufficient funds available during your stay (EUR 100 per day).
Departure tax: When leaving São Tomé, a departure tax of EUR 20 per person is due. This has to be paid at the tax booth at the airport prior to checking in. It is recommended to have exact change available.
Connections: Although a number of cruise ships visit São Tomé e Príncipe, the main mode of transport is air travel.
From Europe, the easiest way to travel to São Tomé is via Lisbon, from where there are four flights per week to São Tomé: thrice per week with TAP Portugal (with a stop in Accra, Ghana) and once per week with STP Airways (direct).
In both cases, there are same day connections with flights from and to Amsterdam (or other European airports). It is possible to combine a trip to São Tomé with a short stopover in Lisbon.
STP Airways is the national airline of São Tomé e Príncipe and uses modern and safe planes, operated by Euro-Atlantic, a Portuguese aircraft operator. When flying with STP Airways, it will be necessary to book two separate tickets (Amsterdam – Lisbon and Lisbon – São Tomé). STP Airways often has special fares (also check with the hotels in São Tomé, who may be offer a package) from Lisbon to São Tomé. TAP Portugal, KLM, Transavia and Easyjet have regular flights to Lisbon.
TAP sells tickets from Amsterdam to São Tomé, although sometimes two return tickets (Amsterdam – Lisbon vice versa and Lisbon – São Tomé vice versa) can be cheaper.
Other airports with connections to São Tomé are: Accra (Ghana), Praia (Cabo Verde), Luanda (Angola), Malabo (Equatorial Guinea) and Libreville (Gabon). There are 3-4 flights per week from São Tomé to Príncipe operated by Africa’s Connection and STP Airways.
Local transport: Many visitors rent a car (generally 4-wheel drive), with or without a driver, to explore the islands. The condition of the roads varies and because of the islands’ topography, travel can take longer than the distance in kilometres may suggest. The main urban centres have taxi services, but the condition of the taxi’s are generally poor and therefore unsuitable for longer distances. Most hotels can arrange transport and will normally arrange transfers from the airport to the hotel.
Culture: The country has a rich cultural life, reflecting the mixture of its population. Some of the cultural traditions were brought to the islands by the inhabitants from the countries from which they originated. Others developed when these different cultures met on the islands.
A number of actions are taken to preserve and promote local cultural traditions and art, mainly through the CACAU network (www.cacaucultural.com). The activities of CACAU include exhibitions by local plastic artists, local gastronomy, theatre, traditional dances and sports as well as activities relating to “Tchiloli” and “Auto de Floripes”, special forms of theatre from São Tomé island and Príncipe, respectively.
Climate: Throughout the year, the temperatures during the day will stay at around 25-28°C, with temperatures dropping to 18-21°C at night. The many microclimates result in different weather patterns in the various parts of the islands.
Tourism: The islands are ideally suited for an unusual, comfortable and safe African holiday. The time difference with Europe is minimal, so travellers will not suffer from jet lag. The islands have beautiful beaches, but there is so much else to do and see that this should not be the main reason for travelling to São Tomé e Príncipe. The nature on the islands is overwhelming and there are good hiking opportunities. Nature lovers can discover plants and birds that can only be found on the islands.
Depending on the season it is possible to watch whales or to experience sea turtles coming ashore to lay their eggs on (protected) beaches. There are many old colonial buildings to visit (some in better shape than others). It is also possible to explore the plantations and to see how, for example, coffee, cacao and vanilla are being produced.
The location of the islands in the Gulf of Guinea suggests that its exclusive economic zone could contain oil and gas. Although exploration takes place, it is not clear to what extent the reserves are sufficiently large and accessible for exploitation.
However, there are a number of opportunities that could improve the country’s economy. Tourism is still in its infancy, and although it is understood that the country should not (and cannot) develop in a mass tourism destination, it should be possible to expand its tourist facilities and infrastructure, focussing on added value tourism (ecological, gastronomic, scientific and cultural).
Even if it is not possible to exploit its own oil and gas reserves, the islands could function as a service centre for the region, such as financial and corporate services, and as a transport hub for regional shipping and airline connections. The fact that the country’s means of communication have been improved significantly due to its connection to mainland Africa by optical fibre, will make it easier to perform this function.
Agriculture, horticulture, floriculture and fisheries are other sectors that can be developed further. Farmers have traditionally not used pesticides and similar products, so that a large part of the country’s production (and territory) can be classified as ecological. Fishing is also still done artisanally and therefore in a sustainable manner.
However, in order to develop the aforementioned areas, significant investment will be required in (material and immaterial) infrastructure, such as airport and port facilities, roads, energy (wind, solar or hydro-power), education and healthcare. Unless it is able to generate income from its potential oil and gas resources, the government will itself not be able to finance the infrastructure and will therefore need foreign aid or public – private partnership initiatives to develop this infrastructure.