For an Adrenaline Rush, Try an Angola Vacation
By RACHEL L. SWARNS
LUANDA, Angola -- The cynics of the world might be doubtful, but Jorge Aliceres Valentim is a true believer. Someday soon, he declares, this fading, crumbling city will transform itself into a glimmering magnet for foreign tourists.
"Oh, God, this is a wonderful place!" he shouted, striding across the cobblestone courtyard of a colonial fort that overlooks the skyline and the bay. "We'll put in some small restaurants, a bar! We'll take pictures and make postcards! And people will sit down and drink Coca-Cola and buy souvenirs!"
It is true that there is no money for restaurants or cafe tables or even paint, and barely enough to pay the workers who tend this worn historical site. It is also true that this country is still at war, which makes it tougher to attract international leisure travelers.
But Mr. Valentim's optimism is unshakable. He is a preacher determined to convert a world of little faith. He is, to be precise, Angola's minister of hotels and tourism.
In his gold-rimmed glasses and elegant suits, he is all smiles and hearty handshakes and European-style kisses. He is a man who speaks in exclamation points, a man who does not believe in the word "no." Angola will rebound, he says. It's only a matter of time.
"People think I'm crazy, with a lot of dreams," Mr. Valentim, 62, admitted cheerfully as he discussed his most unlikely of unlikely jobs. "I realize it's difficult. It's difficult to talk about tourism when the country is at war. But we must overcome this. So I preach about the beauty of Angola. And I speak with enthusiasm because I feel it and see it."
And so, while the rebels attack in the countryside, he publishes glossy brochures of this country's elegant colonial churches, its glorious waterfalls and its long stretches of beach. On national radio, he urges the public to smile and welcome foreigners. He flies to international travel conventions and describes the government's recent military victories and the country's safe zones.
His job, he says, is to prepare for the day when peace finally comes, and to tell people they can safely visit some places right now.
"People ask, 'What about security?' People think, 'Is it safe to drink water? What about cholera? What about malaria?' " he said, ticking off the questions he encounters abroad. "I say it is safe to visit Luanda. More than half of the country is secure. And if you need a minister to follow you around to make you feel safe, call me! I will do it!"
But there can be little doubt that if the Guinness Book of World Records ranked the world's toughest jobs, Mr. Valentim's would be near the top.
How do you sell tourists on a country that has been at war for nearly 30 years? And how do you manage that with a promotions budget of less than $800,000? (By comparison, South Africa will spend $18 million this year to promote tourism, and even that campaign is considered modest by world standards.)
The State Department's travel advisories are another formidable obstacle. The department strongly advises against travel to Angola, which plunged into its seemingly endless civil war shortly after independence from Portugal in 1975.
"Travel within Angola remains unsafe due to bandit attacks, undisciplined police and military personnel, sporadic high-intensity military actions in interior provinces, and unexploded land mines in rural areas," warns the most recent advisory, dated September.
It will come as little surprise then that Angola attracted only 15,000 international visitors last year, most business travelers lured by this country's vast reserves of diamonds and oil. (South Africa drew about 5.7 million.) But Mr. Valentim, with his booming voice and boundless energy, is undeterred by the disappointing statistics, by the latest guerrilla offensive, by naysayers who think peace and tourists will never come.
"We think the outside world will respond positively to our message," said Mr. Valentim, who has been inspired by his conversations with officials from other countries at war. "Even Algeria," he exclaimed. "No matter that they have war -- they're still insisting on trying tourists."
This year he will oversee the renovation of the Tropico Hotel, which is to have 100 rooms and a restaurant by August. He also plans to start construction of bungalows on the nearby resort island of Mussulo.
And starting in June, the government will introduce 25 elephants, 40 buffalo and 400 antelope into Quicama National Park, which Mr. Valentim hopes will someday compete with game preserves in South Africa and Botswana.
"Look, we're starting small," said Wouter Van Hoven, a professor of wildlife management at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, who is helping the Angolan government develop its national parks.
"We've got nine parks with zero infrastructure," Mr. Van Hoven said. "We wouldn't even know what to do if we had 500,000 tourists. So we're thinking small groups. The adrenaline-type tourists, the kind that do high jumps and like new places."
Some people roll their eyes at such talk.
In this nation of palms and waterfalls, bustling markets and graceful architecture, wrinkled women pick through garbage bins for food and boys sleep in sewers. And the mineral riches seem to fuel only the looting and fighting between the government of President Jos Eduardo dos Santos and the rebel force, known as Unita, the Portuguese acronym for National Union for the Total Independence of Angola.
Mr. Valentim says his tourism slogan should be, "Welcome to Angola, a Country of National Reconciliation." A more jaded government official suggested: "Welcome to Angola. If You're Lucky, You'll Find a Diamond. If You're Not, You'll Step on a Land Mine."
But if there is anyone who can reverse the tide of negative publicity, it just might be Mr. Valentim, a genial and canny master of the art of persuasion, whose personal motto seems to be "nothing is impossible."
Shortly after Angola won independence, he was accused in the killings of Portuguese people in the port city of Lobito, a charge he vehemently denies. The accusations did not prevent him from climbing the political ladder. For years he served as Unita's minister of information, rallying support for his friend Jonas Savimbi. He was a key Unita negotiator of the 1994 accord that brought this country peace for nearly four years.
And when Mr. Valentim traded his fatigues for a business suit and joined the government in 1997, he says, he was ready to head Angola's first Ministry of Tourism. (He cut his ties with Mr. Savimbi when the war heated up again in 1998.) "The prestige to be minister of tourism was not very high," he said. "But I accepted the job with a good mood, and here I am still smiling."
His recent travels abroad have reinforced his sense of the importance of upgraded hotels and paved roads. Someday he even wants to set up hot dog stands, hamburger restaurants and hotels along the highways for hungry motorists.
"But first it is necessary to have good hotels," he said."Then we must also improve the banking system. Money must be exchanged in banks, not on the streets. The other thing is, we must have taxis. When you arrive in the airport, you want to move freely. You don't want to wait for a friend to pick you up. You want to have taxis. Other countries have taxis. We must have them, too."
And when he closes his eyes, he can almost see it: Luanda, the vibrant, bustling tourist haven.
As he strolled through this historic fort this week, admiring the copper statues of Portuguese kings and poets, the tanks and rifles from Angola's past wars, he envisioned the place filled with visitors snapping photos, buying souvenirs, sipping soda.
"Keep it well! Watch it well!" Mr. Valentim admonished the fort's caretakers, who seemed astonished by his visit.
"Soon there will be many people coming."