On the up: With government backing, the sector’s contribution to GDP is set to rise

In a bid to diversify its largely oil-dependent economy, developing tourism has become a top priority under Green Gabon, a central pillar of the Emerging Gabon programme, targeting economic growth through, among other things, forestry, agriculture, fisheries and conservation. Although tourism is still a minor contributor, it has sizeable potential to supplement state revenues and boost employment.

The Ministry of Investment Promotion, Public Works, Transport, Housing and Tourism registered 100,000 visitors between 2006 and 2011, but more than half of sector revenue is generated in Estuaire Province, around Libreville, with business tourism the main source of visitors.

To broaden its appeal, the country is aiming to capitalise on its natural advantages to enhance its tourism offering and attract high-spending visitors curious to explore Gabon’s pristine forests and observe its abundant wildlife.

The government has regularly reiterated its goal of making the country a prominent ecotourism destination and a target for both public and private investment, though it faces challenges in improving infrastructure and ancillary services. New developments bode well, including the release of the Tourism Satellite Account’s report (Compte Satellite du Tourisme, CST), a system for data and information collection that is expected to enable a better assessment of the sector, helping to identify potential for development and attract investment.

PROGRESS REPORT: Perhaps the most significant development – at least from an investment point of view – was the release of the first CST report, launched in July 2011 to measure the sector’s performance in terms of revenue, investments and employment, and identify activities based on visitor characteristics, trips, and tourism-related goods and services. Informal tourism-related activities, such as transport and real estate, have also been taken into account. The final CST report covers 2008 through to 2010. “This is the first time that Gabon has conducted an extensive study of the sector. It is an important step towards strengthening the data and statistics collection system,” Jean-Leonard Nguema Ondo, the director-general of tourism at the Ministry of Investment Promotion, Public Works, Transport, Housing and Tourism, told OBG.

BY THE NUMBERS: According to the CST report, French nationals (35%) accounted for the largest number of arrivals to Gabon in 2009, followed by Cameroon (9%) and the UK (7%).

Some 39% of visitors were 36-50 years old, the largest age group of incoming tourists, while those aged 26-35 accounted for 29%. Of those who visited, 59% came for business, 9.4% to visit family, 8.7% for holidays, 8.4% to attend conferences and meetings, and 3.9% for leisure. Incoming non-resident tourists stayed for a total of 1.9m nights in 2009, with 49% of them lodging in hotels, 17% staying with family and 12% in rented apartments.

Incoming tourists spent a total of €327m, excluding flight costs. Accommodation accounted for the largest share of spending, totalling €197m. The same can be said of domestic tourism by Gabonese residents, with CFA318bn (€477m) of CFA682bn (€1.02bn) spent on accommodation, CFA202bn (€303m) on transport, and CFA125bn (€188m) on food and leisure. This is testament to the high cost of lodging, especially in hotels, due to limited choice in terms of supply and reliance on high-end business tourists. The government is looking to address this issue by encouraging the development of mid-range hotels, for instance, to cater for increasing numbers of visitors as it looks to develop other segments beyond business tourism.

Statistics from the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) – an organisation of industry executives that promotes travel worldwide – show that tourism is still very much in its infancy in Gabon. The sector’s total contribution to GDP in 2011 was €290m, or 2.8% of GDP, and is expected to contribute €309m – 2.9% of GDP – in 2012, mainly as a result of the increase in the number of people visiting during the African Cup of Nations (Coupe d’Afrique des Nations, CAN) which Gabon co-hosted with Equatorial Guinea at the beginning of the year. This is low compared to other African countries. For instance, tourism’s contribution to GDP in South Africa and Ghana in 2011 was 8.6% and 5.4%, respectively.

The government hopes to raise tourism’s contribution to GDP through the investments made for the CAN and increasing visitor numbers, and is aiming to double the number of arrivals by 2020 via initiatives being developed under the Emerging Gabon programme, including better marketing of Gabon at both national and international level, going beyond business tourism to develop ecotourism, and enhancing the quality of infrastructure and services on offer in the hotel and hospitality sector.

BUSINESS TOURISM: Business brought 59% of visitors in 2009, according to the CST. The country has become an attractive location for international conferences in recent years, especially since 2009, when the government set clear goals under its Emerging Gabon development strategy to attract more investment to services, industry and the environment. For instance, Libreville hosted the first New York Forum Africa in June 2012, which was attended by 1000 participants from 50 different countries.

Business spending amounted to €40m in 2011, according to the WWTC. The country’s main hotels catering for business tourists include Okoume Palace and Le Méridien in Libreville, Léconi Palace and Oubara Hotel in Franceville, and Le Doyen, Le Mé ridien and Hotel de l’Aéroport in Port-Gentil. Okoume Palace in Libreville has eight conference rooms and hosts most of the major events.

However, as the country looks to further develop the meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions segment, there is a pressing need to modernise existing hotels and business meeting space, and to boost capacity in the high-end segment to meet increased demand and raised business tourism expectations.

BOOSTING CAPACITY: The CST estimates structures operating in the formal accommodation sector in Gabon at 1100, of which 450 are to be found in Estuaire Province. A further 400 are estimated to be operating in the informal sector, or as unregistered hotels and motels. The high-end segment caters to the largest number of visitors. Libreville is home to the country’s main high-end hotels, which include Okoume Palace Hotel and Le Méridien.

However, these establishments lack the capacity to handle rising demand for accommodation. The new classification system being devised has also encouraged institutions to undergo modernisation and improve the quality of their facilities.

Renovations are to be carried out in two phases, starting in September 2012 at Okoume Palace Hotel after its management was taken over by Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group earlier in the year. Work on a major conference venue is expected to be completed by April 2014, producing one of the largest hospitality complexes in the area, with 470 rooms, four restaurants, a large indoor/outdoor bar, and 1300 sq metres of conference and meetings facilities.

Plans to build new hotels in the high-end segment are also taking off. Marriott International will invest in two hotels in Libreville, with a 250-room Marriott Hotels & Resorts-branded hotel and a 40-unit Marriott Executive Apartments designed for extended-stay travellers. Both are expected to be operational in 2015. The need for more capacity in the high-end segment has also been highlighted to accommodate increasing demand for ecotourism, although this segment is still in its infancy.

CONSERVATION: Gabon was rated ninth in Africa on Yale University’s 2010 Environmental Performance Index, which ranks countries according to performance in achieving their environmental policy goals. The country has made major strides to preserve its biodiversity in the last decade: 10 years ago former President Omar Bongo Ondimba declared over 11% of Gabon’s surface protected land and divided it into 13 national parks, sparked in part by the discoveries of new species of flora and fauna made by biologist Mike Fay after he completed a 3200-km tour around Central Africa in 2000.

In 2007 the National Agency for National Parks (Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux, ANPN) was established to protect, develop and manage the national parks. The agency has a $25m budget and employs 450 people, compared to around $1m and 80 people just two years ago.

Environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs) – including the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the World Wildlife Fund – have been present in Gabon for several decades, with the WCS playing a key role in devising the national park system. Today, the WCS is considered one of the most important organisations in Gabon, supporting conservation in seven of the national parks and providing training to government conservation workers. Environmental conservation has been further emphasised since 2009 by President Ali Bongo Ondimba under the Green Gabon development plan.

However, a number of obstacles need to be overcome before the government can achieve its objectives with regard to environmental conservation. According to Nguema Ondo, managing the national parks and ensuring security at the country’s borders is a major challenge the government is looking to address. “Ensuring security and countering illegal immigration and smuggling, especially the illegal ivory trade, is a top priority,” he told OBG.

Indeed, Gabon attracted international attention when Ondimba burned the government’s stock of ivory in June 2012 to protest against poaching. Following the 1989 global ivory ban, poaching of elephants peaked in 2011. From a population of 5m in the 1940s, the number of African elephants is now estimated to be between 472,000 and 690,000, with Gabon having half of all surviving forest elephants.

ECOTOURISM: Showcasing Gabon’s biodiversity through ecotourism is among the government’s goals, and it aims to boost the annual number of ecotourists from the current 2000-3000 to 10,000 by 2016. Several projects are currently in the pipeline, and agreements with investment groups – such as Mauritius-based Sustainable Forestry Management Africa, and Singapore-based Aman Resorts – have been signed to develop high-end ecolodges in selected national parks. Aman Resorts will invest around €85m to establish six high-end hotels and resorts over the next five years, notably in five national parks, adding a total of 140 rooms to the high-end accommodation segment. SFM Africa will also build up to seven lodges in different national parks.

Mid-range hotels, a long-neglected segment, also saw an uptick in capacity in 2012 as part of the CAN preparations. Upgrades were carried out at a number of existing hotels in this price bracket, while new ones were opened in the two main cities hosting the tournament, Libreville and Franceville, to welcome visiting players, staff and fans.

HUMAN RESOURCES: Human resources in the tourism industry remain limited. The sector accounts for around 5000 jobs, representing 1% of total employment in Gabon. As the country looks to diversify its economy, enhancing the quality and availability of human resources is a top priority.

However, the first problem lies with the curricula. Courses at the existing institutes, including the public National Institute of Management (Institut National de Gestion), which delivers specialised degrees in tourism, need revisiting and aligning with the government’s Green Gabon strategy.

Although the School of Hotel Management and Tourism (Ecole d’Hôtellerie et de Tourisme) in neighbouring Cameroon is open to students in the Monetary and Economic Community of Central Africa (Commission de la Communaute Economique et Monetaire de l’Afrique Centrale, CEMAC) and the rest of the continent, only 18 Gabonese are granted entry to the institute per year.

The government is therefore aiming to develop legislation to regulate tourism-related training, and is evaluating the sector’s human resources needs. It is allocating €750,000 in a bid to boost the number of qualified personnel. Plans include a catering and hospitality school, as well as specialised courses to train expert guides and environmental scientists.

FOSTERING RURAL DEVELOPMENT: Ecotourism is a crucial component of economic development and human resources training in rural areas. However, this segment remains underdeveloped, and Gabon is continuing to experience a demographic shift towards urban centres. “There is a pressing need to counter the rural exodus and provide local people with opportunities in their own areas,” Vincent Magloire Nkapseu Mihindou, a consultant at the National Employment Office, told OBG.

A pilot project backed by the EU was carried out in the village of Sette Cama in Gamba from 2003 to 2005 to promote active community participation on tourism. The Sectoral Programme for Value Addition of Protected Areas (Programme Sectoriel de Valorisation des Aires Protégées, PSVAP) was seen as a major success that should be duplicated across the country. Public and private operators such as Gabontour and Shell – along with a number of NGOs such as the WCS – took part, providing the local population with catering, hospitality and ecoguide training, and promoting local crafts. Between January and December 2006, the services provided by the ecoguides through the PSVAP generated €9300, catering raised €6900, and more than €3450 was generated by entry fees to Loango National Park.

TRANSPORT LINKS: As the government looks to develop the ecotourism industry, providing modern transport links has become a must to ensure connections to and from the national parks, especially those in remote areas. In-country links, especially by road and rail, are scarce and unreliable. The government is investing in transport upgrades as part of its national infrastructure master plan. Works to pave up to 800 km of roads between Libreville and the south, for instance, have been completed.

However, ecotourism is pricey and tends to cater mostly to high-end tourists, and transport to and from the parks is mainly carried out by air. While Gabon looks to improve domestic air links, work is being carried out to upgrade airfields such as the landing strip at Loango Lodge, which is expected to be resurfaced and lengthened to 1000 metres to allow direct flights from Libreville and Port-Gentil.

Private Gabonese airline La Nationale was banned from flying after the National Civil Aviation Authority revoked its licence in August 2012. This followed on from Gabon Airlines, an international carrier that provided domestic and international services, ceasing operations in 2011, adding to the difficulties already caused by the placing of Gabonese airlines on the EU blacklist. Yet despite the ban on domestic airlines, international connections have grown in volume. Lufthansa has increased the frequency of its flights from Frankfurt to daily, and regional carriers RwandAir and Air Ivoire began operations in early 2011. Ethiopian Airlines, Air France and Royal Air Maroc also offer connections to Europe.

AIRPORT WORKS: To keep up with the increase in international flights, plans to modernise and expand Gabon’s airports are under way. Libreville’s Léon M’Ba International Airport underwent renovation works in preparation for the CAN tournament, and Port-Gentil International Airport is set for renovation and expansion to handle wide-body aeroplanes (see Transport chapter). In the meantime, both cities are set to receive new international airports, and another being planned at Andème, 65 km from Libreville, is expected to open in 10-12 years.

MARKETING: Gabontour is responsible for the promotion of the country’s tourism offerings at home and abroad. In 2012 Gabontour was present at a number of international tourism trade fairs, including FITUR Madrid in January, ITB Berlin in March, and more recently at events in South Korea and Finland. “We have adopted a strategy to attract people already travelling on the continent by marketing Gabon as a complement to what is already on offer in other African nations. Therefore, Gabon is looking to cooperate with its neighbours to increase its appeal,” Albert Engonga-Bikoro, the director-general of Gabontour, told OBG. Still, there is a need to boost promotional activities. Therefore, under its 2012-16 development plan the government is expected to allocate up to €150,000 to create a National Agency for Tourism Development (Agence Nationale de Developpement Touristique, ANDT). The agency will be responsible for marketing, managing projects, financing and partnerships. How the ANDT and Gabontour will cooperate is still being debated by authorities. In the meantime Gabontour remains responsible for marketing and promotion.

OUTLOOK: Tourism is an alternative source of revenue and a sustainable contributor to economic diversification for oil-dependent Gabon. Around €44m was spent in the sector in 2011, accounting for 1% of total investment. This should rise significantly in the years to come, as the government targets 100,000 tourists per year by 2020. Gabon will need to attract more investors to assist the government in its plans to upgrade the existing hospitality infrastructure and build new hotels in the major cities. Ecotourism and the development of national parks are key to making the country a destination for environmentalists and wildlife lovers. Finally, the CST should help decision-makers identify what can be done to increase the sector’s contribution to GDP.

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The Report: Gabon 2012

Tourism chapter from The Report: Gabon 2012

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