Developers and tourists have increasingly found their way to scenic and sparsely populated northern Mozambique, but nearby top destination Tanzania could only be reached by a rough pirogue river crossing. A new bridge changes this.
It is the least developed border in the region, despite both countries being members of Africa's most vital trade and political block, the Southern African Development Community (SADC). But Tanzania has its political and economic centre in the north, the south being sparsely populated. Vast Mozambique is opposite, with its centre in the far south and the north historically under-developed.
Until now, a good road connection between Tanzania and Mozambique therefore has been economically unnecessary. But a new industry is gradually changing this. Tourism is conquering the virgin region.
For Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete and his Mozambican counterpart Armando Guebuza, last week's inauguration of the new bridge across Ruvuma River, linking the two countries, was a dream come true. Already the founding presidents of the two poor nations had made plans for such a bridge, the two leaders said at a colourful opening ceremony at the border.
Neither President Kikwete nor President Guebuza made much mention of the region's growing tourism industry, but rather made reference the historic ties between the two nations during Mozambique's tough liberation struggle. "The two countries are very poor to implement such big projects," said President Kikwete. "But this daring move has proved that we can implement many big projects together," he added.
The new 720-meter bridge would make a very big difference to traders between Mozambique and Tanzania, leaders held. Traders and travellers until now have had to re-embark goods into unstable small-capacity pirogues in a costly and time-consuming operation. As development in the region booms, especially in the tourism sector, cross-border trade is also growing.
The construction, by now necessary, had been a major investment for the two governments. They shared the $35 million investment. Constructions started in January 2005 and were led by the Chinese company China Geo Engineering Corporation. The works included five kilometres of paved roads on each side of the bridge and border.
But apart from the bridge and the new road, travelling overland between Tanzania and Mozambique is still not an easy task.
Presidents Kikwete and Guebuza also recognised the need for much bigger investments to ease cross-border traffic during their inauguration speeches.
Security and immigration offices on both sides of the new border have yet to be finalised, but these are being constructed. President Kikwete suggested the installation of a one-stop-centre for travellers and traders, but no decisions have been made in that direction yet.
More pressing is the road infrastructure leading to the new border crossing. In Tanzania, roads in the southernmost area, between Lindi and Mtwara, are in an acceptable state, but dirt roads from Mtwara to the border and the much longer distance from Lindi towards Dar es Salaam are in a very poor state. Tanzania has very limited infrastructure budgets, and there have been no government announcements regarding an upgrading of these key roads.
In Mozambique, challenges are even greater, but there exist realistic plans to improve standards. Large investments have already been made in the country's 500-kilometres north-south road connection, including the recent inauguration of a bridge over Zambezi River, and some US$ 507 million in US aid funds are soon to be released for further upgrading of this connection.
But for now, the northernmost 185 kilometres of Mozambique's north-south connection are among the country's worst dirt roads. During the rainy season, this road is almost impassable. President Guebuza nevertheless has concrete plans and funding to invest in this road, it was learned.
Tourists, so far, in any way reach the increasingly popular region by plane. And currently, the poor roads fit the rough and pristine image northern Mozambique is marketing. Empty tropical paradise beaches, rough mountains and waters, roaming wildlife and oasis-like lodges - it is a setting that is suited well with challenging dirt roads.
But developers and government have greater plans. The almost virgin region is already preparing for charter tourism, especially around the large Niassa Reserve. Infrastructure thus becomes a major challenge and the new Ruvuma bridge is key to further development.