Last updated: 12:00 PM ET, Fri November 06 2015

Equatorial Guinea: Undiscovered Gem (With a Terrible Human Rights Record)

Destination & Tourism | Josh Lew | November 06, 2015

Equatorial Guinea: Undiscovered Gem (With a Terrible Human Rights Record)

PHOTO: Bata Cathedral, one of many beautiful colonial sites in this troubled country. (Courtesy of Thinkstock)

There are lots of ways to define the tiny West African nation of Equatorial Guinea. It is a pristine place filled with nature and an interesting mix of colonial architecture. Unlike its francophone, lusophone and anglophone neighbors, the official language here is Spanish. The beaches are beautiful and totally tourist-free. If you only look at these traits, Equatorial Guinea seems like it might be an interesting destination to visit.

A violent history

Just a few short years ago, Freedom House called the country one of the “worst of the worst” in terms of human rights and press freedoms. Longtime dictator Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasago came to power in 1979 by leading a coup against his own uncle, who was supposedly planning to assassinate other members of the family because he feared that they would attempt to take over the country. After he took power, Obiang ruthlessly dealt with any and all opposition to his rule.

So, on one hand, you have a country with a terrible human rights record. On the other hand, you have a virtually untouched travel destination – the kind of place that adventure-seekers and intrepid backpackers dream about discovering before everyone else.

One of the least-visited countries on earth

Equatorial Guinea is one of the least visited places on earth. Tourism has never really been a part of the economic plan. Many people still survive as subsistence farmers or fishermen, but the country's elite benefit from oil reserves discovered in 1996 and from one of the area's original wealth-making industry: timber harvesting.

If they can make it to the virgin jungles, nature-lovers will see forest elephants, gorillas, rare birds and other mammals. Though these creatures are hard to find in many other West African safari destinations, sightings are commonplace here.

Ruins that would inspire Indiana Jones

Remnants of the human history also sit untouched. According to the Guardian, the country's Corisco Island has beaches littered with gin bottles from the 1800s. Spanish and French colonial ruins sit empty nearby, like something straight out of an Indian Jones movie. For a certain kind of adventure-seeking, see-it-first traveler, Equatorial Guinea is like Disneyland is to an eight-year-old kid: the ultimate destination. 

Is it right to visit such an oppressed country?

Will you go to Equatorial Guinea? Conscientious tourists might object to spending money in a country that has such a poor human rights record. At the same time, there may be chances to spread the wealth around a little bit by staying in locally owned guesthouses, eating at independently owned restaurants and generally doing things that allow you to hand money directly to EG's people, three quarters of whom live under the poverty line (despite a per capita GDP that tops $22,000).

The country has made attempts to warm up to the outside world. It was the host of the recent Africa Cup of Nations soccer tournament. EG became a member of the CPLP (Community of Portuguese Language Countries) after the organization deemed that it had improved its human rights record sufficiently. (EG's previous applications were rejected because of the way it stifled the press and opposition politicians).

If Equatorial Guinea can ever get its act together and build some sort of destination promotion strategy, it will undoubtedly draw more tourists. It has many of the ingredients needed for tourism success already in place. Infrastructure is all that is really lacking. Tourists who have doubts about EG should consider this: they will be spending money in the country, and some of it will probably come back to the regime. But, at the same time, being a tourist is not the same as buying the country's oil or timber....

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