“For the peak season I would have about 280 persons climbing Mount Cameroon,” said John Ngomba, a tour guide in the town of Buea, which has been at the forefront of Cameroon’s anglophone separatist insurgency.
“But now there are no tourists coming. It’s really crazy. The reason tourists are not coming is because of the crisis.”
Since an independence declaration a year ago, Buea — once a tourist hotspot — has suffered near-daily clashes and visitors have all but disappeared.
The violence has claimed the lives of at least 420 civilians, 175 members of the security forces and an unknown number of separatists, according to the International Crisis Group think-tank.
“Sometimes I would receive 600 Germans a year. They would come through the cruise ships. I could have about 30 to 50 tourists a week who came to visit,” said Ngomba in his hut in the town’s Bismarck Fountain gardens.
Cameroon was once a German colony but was divided between Britain and France after World War I — a separation that lies at the heart of the current conflict.
France’s colony won independence in 1960, becoming Cameroon, and in 1961 the British-ruled Southern Cameroons was merged into it, giving the new state English-speaking majorities in the northwest and southwest.
“I am a father of five children. How am I living with them? It’s impossible,” said Ngomba, who has appealed for help from the German embassy, which assists with the upkeep of the garden containing a bust of Bismarck.
“The fountain is not even working,” he said, looking out over the restive town below and the former German governor’s residence, which is now an army base.
But Ngomba insisted that the foothills above Buea remained safe.
“If the tourists arrive and get to this point, they are safe,” he said.
“I tell people: after the election, things will be OK,” he added of polls due on Sunday at which President Paul Biya will seek a seventh term.
But several countries including Germany, Britain, Canada and the United States have issued security advisories to their citizens about the anglophone regions.
“We used to have customers coming from many countries — America, Europe, Nigeria,” said Janet Nkowo, 30, a receptionist at the Eta Palace Hotel in downtown Buea.
“I think it’s because of the crisis. The difference is really clear,” she said.
“We have one-quarter of what we had, I don’t know how the director does it. I think things will hopefully get better on Sunday.”
Most of Buea’s hotels are sitting empty, the majority of shops are shuttered and only a handful of students queued up at the town’s university to register for the new academic term.
A total of 246,000 people have fled their homes in the southwest region that includes Buea — and 25,000 have left the country altogether for Nigeria, according to UN figures.
At the town’s weekly market, one of the few retail outlets still functioning, many stalls sat empty.
A man in a white vest shouted “French bastards” at passers-by, in French.
“Maybe if voting passes well, they will come back,” said Fidelis Kum, a stallholder selling hair extensions, as customers haggled over live chickens nearby and women sat shelling snails.