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Hotel Polana: Mozambique's 80-year-old splendour
African Business / September 2001

By Larry Luxner

MAPUTO -- It's the fanciest hotel in one of the world's poorest countries, and it has clearly seen better days. But Mozambique's 80-year-old Hotel Polana isn't giving up, and in fact has recently been spruced up in anticipation of an influx of tourists from South Africa, Europe and elsewhere.

David R. Ankers is general manager of the venerable old hotel, which was built in 1921 when Mozambique was still a Portuguese colony and the capital, Maputo, was still known as Lourenšo Marques.

"With independence in 1974, all skilled people left Mozambique virtually overnight," he said, "whereas in Botswana, it was a gradual process, and where they always had an expatriate community."

As a result, says Ankers, these days "the tourism infrastructure is not in place. There are probably only three or four air-conditioned buses in Maputo. Whenever we have big international conferences, we have to import buses from South Africa."

Even so, occupancy at the 200-room hotel is running at 65%. Nearly all of them are filled with American or South African executives here on business.

"Mozambique, as we all know, survives on foreign aid, and it's one of the sweethearts of the World Bank," said Ankers, who was born in England but raised in Brazil, where he learned to speak Portuguese fluently. He's spent the last 11 years in Mozambique.

On a recent night at the Polana, guests included an American employee of USAID, an Israeli agribusiness investor and a group of Johannesburg rabbis who had arrived to inaugurate a water-treatment plant with money donated by South African Jews.

Only 2% of the Polana's guests are tourists in the true sense of the word, and the vast majority of these are South Africans, though adventure travelers have begun arriving from Portugal as well in recent years.

"Most tourists coming to Mozambique are South Africans," says Ankers, who has sales reps in Lisbon, Madrid and New York. "We even have a nickname for them, 'turistas de banana.' They bring their beer and potatoes, they leave rubbish and take the fish. And they don't spend a lot of money."

At the moment, the Polana is offering a R2,800 ($350) package that includes round-trip airfare from Johannesburg, two nights' accommodation, daily breakfast, airport transfers and a city tour of Maputo. The hotel's casino is also a big draw, and walking among the blackjack tables and slot machines, one hears a lot more English being spoken than Portuguese.

Ankers used to work at the Mount Nelson in Cape Town, which is very similar in design to the Polana, having been built by Scottish architect Walter Reed in 1899. Ankers came to Mozambique in 1990 to assist in the renovation of the Polana -- a $14 million job that was completed in 1992, and which was marked by an inauguration ceremony attended by South African President F.W. DeKlerk and Mozambique President Joaquim Chissano.

Last October, the hotel's public areas were refurbished again, in a facelift that cost $3.3 million. The hotel, located along Julius Nyerere Boulevard near the embassies, is arguably one of Maputo's most beautiful buildings, and is vaguely reminiscent of the famous Copacabana Palace Hotel in Rio de Janeiro.

Most of its rooms have spectacular views of the Indian Ocean, and the huge pool attracts locals as well as foreign tourists, many of whom are not guests of the Polana but happily pay the $10 fee just to use the facilities for the day.

Famous people who have stayed at the Polana include Nelson Mandela, Queen Elizabeth II, actress Jane Fonda, former President Jimmy Carter and Congo's late dictator Laurent Kabila.

During the disastrous flooding in early 2000 that ravaged central and northern Mozambique, the Polana was filled with foreign journalists covering the tragedy, yet that may have hurt the hotel more than helped it.

"To be in the focal point of CNN and Sky TV for seven to 10 days caused us a lot of damage," he said. "Mozambique is such a big country, and in Maputo we were not affected at all."

Right now, says Ankers, Maputo has 2,800 hotel beds, though the Polana is the city's only five-star hotel; the competition -- including the Rivuma, Cardoso and Holiday Inn -- are all rated as four-star properties.

Despite the poverty, Mozambique is hardly what one could call a cheap travel destination. Rates at the Polana range from $150 to $350, a consequence of high government taxes and the difficulty of doing business in a country where the official currency, the metical, is worth nearly 19,000 to the dollar.

For example, a codfish lunch at the Polana's poolside restaurant costs $18, not including dessert, and drinks are $3 apiece. A haircut and style at the hotel salon starts at $15 for men -- more than double the price in South Africa -- and phone calls to the United States cost $12 a minute.

"Mozambique is an expensive destination. We pay 158% in government import duties on a bottle of whiskey," he says. "It becomes comparable to Europe, and that's not conducive to tourism."

Also not conducive to tourism are Mozambique's restrictive visa policies, which require nationals of all countries except Mauritius to obtain visas before leaving home. In the case of the United States, that means forking over $40 for a single-entry visa at the Mozambique Embassy in Washington.

"We've been trying for so long to get that changed," says Ankers. "They've finally recognized that this is very short-sighted. By charging that much for a visa, they're getting foreign exchange, but now they realize that it affects tourism. In a few months' time, tourists will be able to get their visas at the airport in Maputo or at the border for only $20."

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