Animal attraction: Ecotourism is central to the government’s plans for the sector

With Gabon looking to diversify sources of growth and ensure sustainable development, the government has set ambitious goals for developing the tourism industry, and aims to attract 100,000 visitors annually by 2020. Ecotourism, a key component of the Green Gabon strategy, one of the three main pillars of President Ali Bongo Ondimba’s Emerging Gabon development plan, is expected to contribute a large number of tourists seeking to discover and explore the country’s rich biodiversity.

RESOURCES: Gabon has exceptional natural heritage which spreads across 22m ha of forest and 800 km of coastline. To protect it, 13 national parks were announced in 2002 and created in 2007 by former President Omar Bongo Ondimba, after declaring over 11% of the country’s surface protected land.

Since 2007 these parks have been managed by the National Agency for National Parks (Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux, ANPN), which is responsible for their development and for transforming them into a model for the management of protected areas. National parks cover 11% of the equatorial forest and are home to 50,000 elephants – half of Africa’s forest elephants – and 15,000 rainforest gorillas. The country also has the biggest nesting population of leatherback turtles in the world – 41,000 – and 10,000 species of plants, and yet more could still be found, as large swathes of land remain unexplored.

In July 2010 an outstanding scientific discovery was made by researchers from the National Centre for Scientific Research and the University of Poitiers, identifying the world’s oldest multicell fossil – at 2.1bn years old – on Batéké Plateau in the southeast. The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation is considering including the area of discovery in its list of World Heritage Sites.

NICHES: As a result of this ecological richness, Gabon has great potential to attract high-end visitors. The country aims to attract 10,000 ecotourists per year by 2016, up from the current 2000-3000. The ANPN is also developing geotourism, combining sustainable tourism with a focus on nature and local culture to enhance – rather than simply preserve – specific geographical areas for the benefit of both the environment and local population. Geotourism currently accounts for only 1500-2000 visitors.

Looking to establish itself as a first-class destination, Gabon is rolling out plans to boost high-end accommodation capacity. Although specific details, including location, have yet to be finalised, the ANPN has been tasked under the 2012-16 tourism development plan to establish three tourism interest zones, similar to free zones, to ensure a more equitable distribution of projects.

The types of incentives currently under consideration include a reduction in import taxes and tax exemptions in the first three to five years for businesses operating in the tourism industry.

INFRASTRUCTURE: Plans to modernise and build new hotels also include extending high-end lodges to cater to those visiting the national parks.

Accommodation in or close to the parks is a prime concern if Gabon is to attract more tourists, considering the distance separating some of the most popular parks and Libreville, the main centre for high-end accommodation. Projects to rehabilitate existing lodges and build new ones are in the pipeline.

LOANGO: Gabon’s government is looking to develop two new high-end tourism sites in Loango National Park, meant to help compliment the facilities that are already present at Loango Lodge.

One of the country’s most popular destinations, Loango covers 1550 sq km and is known for its well-preserved environment, unusual coastal setting and rare wildlife, which includes elephants, buffalo, plains gorillas and chimpanzees. The park garnered international attention in 2008 when it was awarded the British Guild of Travel Writer’s award for the best overseas tourism project. Further plans are currently in the pipeline for Loango and a number of other parks.

In January 2012, after two years of negotiations, Gabon signed a €85m joint venture agreement with Singapore-based Aman Resorts to invest in six luxury hotels and resorts over the next five years in key tourist areas, including the national parks of Loango, Ivindo, Lope, Batéké Plateau and Pongara, as well as in Libreville. Aman Resorts will carry out its plans through its local partner Luxury Green Resorts to add 140 rooms offering high-quality services.

The first phase of the project will include a 30-suite luxury hotel and spa in Libreville overlooking nearby Pongara National Park, a 30-bungalow lodge complex on the historic site of the Ngombe lighthouse and a high-end ecotourism camp of 20 tents in Loango National Park on the south-western coast.

According to the agreement, four additional future projects have been identified. In the centre of the country, a 30-suite hotel in Lopé National Park and a 30-bungalow lodge complex near Kongou Falls in Ivindo National Park are included. An additional 10-tent lodge is planned for Loango National Park, as well as a 15-tent lodge in Batéké Plateau National Park. Once completed, the new facilities are expected to create around 500 direct jobs and will be a key attraction for international visitors.

A second joint venture with Sustainable Forestry Management Africa, a Mauritius-based company that leads integrated conservation, forestry and renewable energy projects, is expected to build up to seven lodges in different national parks, each with a capacity to accommodate 16-20 guests. The first phase will include the construction of a lodge each in Libreville, Sud Pongara and Petit Pongara, while the second phase will see lodges built in Moukalaba, Lopé, Mayumba and Lambaréné. A financing agreement worth €75m has already been signed to develop industrial and tourism infrastructure in the southern region of Mayumba.

CHALLENGES: The ecotourism segment undoubtedly faces hurdles in the years ahead. Poor transport conditions make access to the national parks difficult and expensive, while the lack of sanitary and health facilities in some areas is an obstacle. A survey of tourists at Libreville’s Léon M’Ba International Airport – conducted between July and December 2009 – revealed difficulty in obtaining visas as the main disadvantage to visiting Gabon.

Park management is another issue. The ANPN needs to ensure ongoing financial assistance from international partners, develop a long-term plan for the parks, train its personnel and physically reach the parks. The agency receives support from NGOs, international institutions and the government, but besides all its other duties of running, protecting and conserving parks, it is also tasked with the promotion and development of geotourism.

ANPN is responsible for developing tourism in the parks. The state budget has gone from CFA524m (€785,000) in 2010 to CFA5bn (€7.5m) in 2012 and is projected to be CFA7bn (€10.5m) in 2013. Funds originating outside the government, such as from Libreville-based Groupe Kabi, have also proved helpful. External donors contributed a total of CFA3.5bn (€5.25m) in 2012, with a predicted CFA7bn (€10.5m) to come in 2013. In addition, the creation of a foundation to provide sustainable financing for Gabon's protected areas is in an advanced stage and will be finalised in 2013. To compliment ANPN, the government plans to create the National Agency for Tourism Development (Agence Nationale de Developpement Touristique, ANDT). Once created, ANDT will help lead tourism development outside the parks.

TUSK FORCE: A report issued in June 2012 by the UN agency regulating international wildlife trade revealed that elephant poaching in Africa hit its highest-ever recorded rate in 2011. To help tackle the problem, the president has tasked a 204-strong military unit, the Jungle Brigade, with monitoring the conservation areas and combating poachers and ivory smugglers. In addition, also in June, he set alight a government stockpile of ivory to protest against the rise in elephant and rhino killing taking place across the continent. Some 4825 kg of tusks and carvings – equivalent to around 850 dead elephants – were destroyed as Gabon became the first country in Central Africa to publicly burn its ivory stocks.

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The Report: Gabon 2012

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