I visited Port Sudan for a few days last week.  A 10 hour car journey that began several hours before dawn finally drew to an end as we weaved through the Red Sea hills into a Port Sudan decked out in bunting for the opening of the 6th Red Sea Festival for Tourism and Marketing and caught our first sight of the sea.

The festival was one reason for my visit. We are participating in the exhibition with a display of photos about HM The Queen’s State Visit to Sudan in 1965. It’s part of our celebration of her 60th jubilee  this year. It seemed particularly appropriate to bring the display to Port Sudan because there is an even earlier royal connection here: King George V (the Queen’s grandfather) visited near-by Suakin in 1912.

I attended the opening ceremonies of both the festival and the exhibition. They were great fun: Lots of music and dancing and a genuine sense of enjoyment and participation from the huge numbers of ordinary people who clearly wanted to be part of it. We will be contributing to the music with the appearance of two British bands later in the festival.

The festival serves a serious purpose too. It’s part of the Wali’s strategy of building the profile of Port Sudan and growing its tourism industry. Tourism can bring a huge boost to the local economy, creating jobs and prosperity. We know this from our own experience in the UK where the tourism industry brings around £16bn to the UK including £3bn to the Government and employs 2.6million people. Port Sudan has some very obvious tourism potential, which I had the good fortune to sample with a few hours off snorkelling up the coast from Port Sudan. There’s good local cuisine (lovely fish, and coffee) and the natural hospitality of the people of the city, which I experienced at first hand. The Sudanese have responded. Local tourism is growing. But attracting foreign tourists is harder work.  Local business people told me that they needed more international airlinks, development of the tourism infrastructure and a more conducive environment for foreign tourists. They want to draw on UK expertise.

Tourism is not the only important area of economic activity in Port Sudan. The port itself, which I had the opportunity to visit, generates a lot of jobs both directly and through related activity: logistics, freight handling and so on. I look forward to greater UK-Sudanese partnership in developing the Port.  I also briefly visited Port Sudan’s visionary investment park- a huge expanse of land linked up to power and telecoms and aiming to attract 500 new investors. Only 50 so far, but its early days.

All this makes sense, not just for Port Sudan but for Sudan as a whole. The loss of oil revenues from what is now South Sudan is one of the drivers behind economic diversification in the Red Sea State, as it is throughout Sudan. Sudan has huge potential in for example agriculture and mining (in both of which British companies are engaged or interested) and it may be that, if used wisely, the short term pain of the loss of oil will bring long term gain in the shape of a more diversified, job-generating economy.

Turning from the big picture to the small; we support economic activity at the grass roots too, providing micro finance to help women in Suakin to start or develop small business. The sums involved are small, sometimes only a few hundred Sudanese Pounds, but they have made it possible for the women involved to start a bakery business, open a restaurant, sell local fish, trade goods from Khartoum and so on. So far there has not been a single default on a loan.

I did a number of others things in Port Sudan too. The Governor was kind enough to receive me and we had a good conversation about areas of potential collaboration. I met the Chief of Police, who  has been championing work we support to develop community policing in Red Sea State (as we do in Khartoum). And I had a taste of Beja culture, ending my visit dancing with some Beja “warriors” shaking my sword in the air: unscheduled but great fun!

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