* Opposition Renamo party disrupts traffic in central region
* Renamo wants to weaken ruling party's grip on power
* High costs also deter tourists but economy is booming
By Marina Lopes
ILHA DE BAZARUTO, Mozambique, July 4 With its
picture-postcard Indian Ocean beaches, unspoilt coral reefs and
laid-back southern African charm, Mozambique has been slowly
putting its civil war past behind it and emerging as an
attractive, albeit slightly chaotic, tourist destination.
But the threat of renewed conflict in a country still
haunted by 16 years of war in which a million people died has
dealt a major blow to the tourism drive.
Last month, the opposition Renamo party, a former guerrilla
movement that took part in the 1975-1992 war, said it would
disrupt traffic on roads and railways in the southern African
country's central belt, its traditional stronghold.
In the ensuing 10 days, gunmen shot up several trucks and
buses, killing at least two people and forcing vehicles plying
the former Portuguese colony's main north-south highway to
travel in convoys with military escorts.
Foreign embassies have issued warnings against all but
essential travel through the region, especially near the town of
Muxungue, 650 km (400 miles) north of Maputo, where tensions
between Renamo and security forces flared in April.
Many visitors, local and foreign, are heeding the advice to
stay away, even at the start of the busy Mozambican winter
"If you're coming to us from Maputo by car you have to pass
by Muxungue. There is no way around it," said Sitoi Andaq, a
receptionist at the Cuacua Lodge, which lies far to the north on
the Zambezi river.
"This is normally one of our busiest weeks and yet the
numbers have reduced significantly," he said.
Even on the south side of the trouble spot, on the mainland
or the sun-drenched islands of the Bazaruto Archipelago,
hoteliers are feeling the pinch.
"I have had cancellations," said Peggy Warrack, the South
African owner of Casa Berry, an upmarket hotel in Tofo, home to
what are widely regarded as Mozambique's best tourist beaches.
"We are all concerned about it. Who wouldn't be? As it is,
it is expensive to run a business in Mozambique, plus all the
revenue we are losing because of this situation."
In Maputo, Mozambique's seaside capital where Renamo and the
ruling Frelimo party have held two months of fruitless talks
about political reform, especially Frelimo's de facto control of
the election commission, there are few signs of the most serious
tensions between the civil war foes in nearly two decades.
The champagne corks are still popping in the city's ritzy
bars and, amid the decaying colonial grandeur, luxury hotels
continue to spring up - the most visible sign of a flood of
foreign investment pouring in to Mozambique's vast northwest
coal fields and offshore natural gas deposits.
"Mozambique is one of the fastest-growing economies in
Africa and we do believe that tourism is one of the main factors
that will move this country into the world market," said Marco
Veiga, manager at the Southern Sun Hotel, now undergoing a $30
The government, run by the formerly Marxist but now broadly
free-market Frelimo, insists it has a handle on the security
situation, and travel agencies are telling tourists to stay in
the south or avoid the danger zone by flying to the north.
"We are working to win back the confidence that our tourists
have always had in us. That is why we are working to maintain
peace and ensure that their leisure and enjoyment are not
interrupted," Tourism Minister Carvalho Muaria told Reuters.
Renamo, founded around independence with the help of
white-run Rhodesia, says it 'laments' the damage being inflicted
on one of the world's poorest countries but argues its wider aim
- to ease Frelimo's grip on power - is worth the temporary pain.
"We want to see more investors coming into Mozambique but
the current moment of political tension does not permit this,"
Renamo spokesman Fernando Mazanga said. "That is why we want to
accelerate the talks with the government."
The violence is the last thing Mozambique's tourism chiefs
need on top of the usual headaches and costs of operating in a
sleepy African backwater where nearly everything apart from beer
and basic food has to be imported.
At the top end of the market, high-end resorts set on
sun-drenched islands and surrounded by turquoise waters cater
for jetsetters willing to pay $500 a night or more for a private
slice of paradise.
By regional standards, the costs are high, not least because
of the strength of the metical, another by-product of the
billions of dollars flowing into the resources sector.
In 2011, the currency was the world's strongest performer
against the dollar and has barely wavered this year while
currencies such as South Africa's rand have fallen sharply on
the prospect of the U.S. Federal Reserve winding down its
economic stimulus measures.
Even before the Renamo threats, the costs and lack of
reliable infrastructure were causing many tourists to overlook
Mozambique, which attracts fewer than 2 million visitors a year
- less than Zimbabwe or Botswana and a fraction of the 9.2
million that went to South Africa last year.
"Mozambique looks amazing in pictures but when you try to
organise a trip there, it becomes a nightmare," said Jessica
Hughes, a translator from London.
"It's expensive, flights are rare, and when you call resorts
listed online or in your guidebook, it seems they change owners
nearly every year so you can't reach anybody."
For some, however, the absence of hotels and coach-loads of
visitors amid the pristine dunes remains something to cherish.
"I'm thinking about moving," said Gustavo Sindiar, an
environmental protection officer, gazing out over kilometres of
undisturbed sea and sand near Bazaruto. "It is getting way too
crowded here," he joked.
(Additional reporting by Agnieszka Flak; Editing by Ed Cropley
and Gareth Jones)