The swimming pool and the garden of the Sofitel Hotel in Sipopo. Camille Malplat/AFP
Gleaming but eerily empty, the luxurious Sipopo resort with its five-star hotel and exclusive facilities rises from a tropical beach, symbolising the dilemma of Equatorial Guinea — a notoriously closed country that has turned to tourism to help fill its coffers.
The purpose-built town was carved out of an ancient forest in 2011 at a cost of 600 million euros ($670 million), initially to host a week-long African Union summit and showcase the rise of the tiny oil-rich state.
There is also an 18-hole golf course, several restaurants and exclusive beaches guarded by police.
For almost a decade, Sipopo has been the crown jewel in a strategy to lure high-end visitors to Equatorial Guinea to diversify an economy badly hit by a slump in oil revenue.
A worker walks on the street with a seaview, in Sipopo. Camille Malplat/AFP
"It's depressing, there's no-one," said a visiting Gabonese consultant.
A worker, who asked not to be named, said the complex was quiet year-round: "You can hear the sound of your own footsteps."
The occasional visitors tend to be well connected, rich and in search of privacy, the sources said.
One of the villas, according to the sources, was occupied by former Gambian dictator Yahya Jammeh after he fled his country in 2017.
At Easter, the 200-room hotel's guests included a Spanish couple on honeymoon, a few families and some businessmen, who were all foreigners.
A 1.5-kilometre (nearly mile-long) beach — an artificial shore secluded from curious eyes — was virtually deserted, in contrast to a public beach near the capital. The three-lane highway leading from Malabo to Sipopo was mostly empty of traffic.
A hospital was added after the villas were built, but is unused, the sources said.
In 2014, a mall was built at the resort to house 50 shops, a bowling alley, two cinemas and a children's play area.
Located on the mid-Atlantic coast of central Africa, Equatorial Guinea has flooded social media with messages of its allure as a holiday destination.
A few travel firms offer trips tailor-made for both luxury and adventure, but they also allude to the difficulties, notably of being allowed to enter the country.
"The country has been a mystery to outsiders, who were discouraged from entering by a difficult visa process and a lack of tourism infrastructure," says the website of British tour operator Undiscovered Destinations.
The firm claimed, however, that "things are changing fast... with an excellent road network and numerous hotels springing up seemingly overnight."
But that wealth benefits a small elite among the country's 1.2 million inhabitants. More than two-thirds of Equatoguineans live below the poverty line, and 55 percent of the population aged over 15 are unemployed.
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