In a bid to diversify Gabon’s economy away from hydrocarbons, the government has been looking to boost the tourism sector as a means to generate foreign currency, create jobs and promote social and economic development across the country. According to the World Travel & Tourism Council, in 2015 the total (direct and indirect) contribution of travel and tourism to GDP was 2.7%, a figure that authorities are seeking to raise via a new development plan aimed at boosting ecotourism and business tourism segments. The sector is expected to develop in the next few years on the back of expanded hotel capacity, upgraded transport infrastructure and better air links, following the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations (ACN).
Over the past five years, Gabon has received an average of between 180,000 and 200,000 visitors annually, according to Gabon’s immigration department, with the bulk of visitors coming for business purposes (59%), followed by leisure (22%) and meetings and conferences (8%). As part of the Emerging Gabon Strategic Plan (Plan Stratégique Gabon Emergent, PSGE), which aims to diversify the economy, authorities have been looking in recent years to consolidate sector governance as a means to increase its contribution to Gabon’s economic growth. Authorities introduced the Operational Tourism Plan 2012-16, which aims to improve Gabon’s image, accessibility and quality of service, and increase the level of investment in the hospitality sector. To that end, a new institution, the Gabonese Agency for the Development and Promotion of Tourism and Hospitality (Agence Gabonaise de Développement et de la Promotion du Tourisme et de l’Hôtellerie, Agatour) was set up in 2015 to take responsibility for promoting tourism, coordinating development initiatives and managing state-owned hotels.
Sector oversight was moved in September 2015 from the Ministry of Industry and Mines to the Ministry of Trade, Small and Middle-sized Companies, Crafts and Tourism, and again to the new Ministry of Private Investment Promotion, Commerce, Tourism and Industry, in October 2016.
Authorities are working on a new 10-year sector development plan, the National Tourism Strategy (Stratégie Nationale du Tourisme, SNT) 2015-25, in a effort to convert Gabon into a major destination for ecotourism and meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) by 2025. Although it is still in the process of being approved, the plan foresees the creation of tourism zones in Libreville (two), Port-Gentil, the Southern Coast, Lopé, Haut-Ogooué and Lambaréné Bas-Ogooué. Overseen by Agatour, these seven zones will facilitate access to land for tourism projects, support potential investors in the development of their ventures, boost accessibility via the development of adequate transportation infrastructure and ensure the establishment of the necessary water, electricity and sanitation infrastructure.
Agatour will also be responsible for building the country’s image as a tourism destination, liaising with international tour operators and fostering tourism investment alongside the National Investment Promotion Agency. Ultimately, the authorities expect the sector’s share of GDP to rise from 2.7% to 5% and sector employment to increase from 4000 to 25,000 by 2025.
With around 85% of its territory covered by forests, Gabon has the potential to become a major ecotourism destination. In 2007, 13 national parks were created, extending across 11% of the country’s land area in a bid to preserve Gabon’s unspoiled habitat.
Thus far, the development of accommodation in the national parks has been fairly limited, but recently two lodges have been restored and reopened. The first is located in Mayumba and offers a range of products, including sport fishing, whale and turtle viewing and excursions into Moukalaba-Doudou National Park, where the National Agency for National Parks (Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux, ANPN), has worked with teams of scientists from Gabon’s Tropical Ecology Institute and the University of Kyoto to habituate gorillas; and the second in Loango National Park, which previously operated as “Africa’s Eden” and offers a range of game-viewing and fishing excursions, including visits to a group of habituated gorillas.
New developments are also expected in 2017. ANPN is scheduled to reopen the Langoué Baï (forest clearing) camp to tourists. Visitors to the baï will be able to view the many species that frequent the clearing, including forest elephants, gorillas, sitatungas and buffaloes. Elsewhere, in Lopé, mandrill tourism will be reopened following a successful campaign to put radio collars on a group of 800 mandrills. Additionally, a major investment scheme with the involvement of an international investor will see new high-end lodges built in the Pongara, Loango and Ivindo national parks.
According to Lee White, managing director of the ANPN, tourism has developed slower than expected. “Gabon has never been a tourism destination. The cost of living is high and operators, usually Anglo-Saxons, are used to building lodges on the savannah rather than in rainforest. As such, the development of hotel projects has not been as fast as initially planned,” White told local media in June 2016. “Still, we have recently seen an increase in the number of investors interested in signing concession contracts with us.”
As part of the SNT, authorities are looking to implement a new marketing model inspired by Rwanda – the country developed a premium tourism offer based on animal watching – with a view for Gabon’s ecotourism sector to generate an annual turnover of $42m by 2025. However, poaching activities in Gabonese national parks hinder potential sector investment (see analysis). “The protection and management of national parks must be improved first if we want to add further value to our parks,” White told local press.
In 2014 Gabonese authorities established a network of protected maritime areas comprising 10 marine parks, which cover a total of 47,000 sq km, or 23% of Gabon’s territorial waters and exclusive economic zones. These measure stems from the Gabon Blue programme – an extension of the Green Gabon development strategy focusing on the development of value-added and sustainable industries in the tourism sector – which targets the sustainable development of maritime zones. As such, commercial fishing has been prohibited within the protected zones in order to safeguard Gabon’s coastal ecosystem and species such as whales, sharks and sea turtles. It has also paved the way for the development of high-end tourism based on services with high added value, such as sport fishing, beach tourism or wildlife observation. The new tourism zone in Mayumba is expected to be set up for that purpose, with the development of high-end accommodation and improvement of key transportation infrastructure, including the upgrading of Tchibanga and Gamba airports and investment in local road networks.
MICE represents the largest segment in Gabon’s tourism sector. Nearly 60% of tourists visiting the country come for business and close to 10% to attend conferences. Most of the business visitors are Europeans, with the majority being French, followed by Americans and Asians. “Over the years, we have seen a steady development of MICE activities in Gabon, partly as a result of the development of hotel capacities in Libreville following the hosting of the 2012 ACN,” Joseph Ebang Essono, director-general of tourism at the Ministry of Private Investment Promotion, Commerce, Tourism and Industry, told OBG. “This has enabled us to host more guests and organise bigger regional events.” Authorities are currently bolstering Gabon’s MICE offer by developing three tourism zones, in Libreville, Port-Gentil and Franceville with an emphasis on events. The tourism zone in Librevillle will serve as a regional hub for corporate events, while the tourism zones in Port-Gentil and Haut-Ogooué will focus, respectively, on oil and gas and mining events. According to the SNT, authorities expect 60% of tourism investment to be dedicated to MICE infrastructure, such as construction of new venues in Libreville’s Port-Mole and Cité de la Démocratie between 2015 and 2025.
In 2017 Gabon hosts the ACN, an event the country co-hosted with Equatorial Guinea in 2012. To this end, several development projects are under way, including the construction of additional football stadiums in Libreville, Port-Gentil and Oyem (see Construction chapter). Hotel capacities in Port-Gentil and Oyem are also being expanded. “The event will give the country momentum, which the tourism sector has to build upon to promote Gabon as a tourism destination, raise human capital, boost domestic tourism and increase accommodation capacity,” Ebang told OBG. During the 2012 ACN, catering and accommodation generated CFA4.7bn (€7.1m) in revenue, and the country is expected to double this amount in 2017.
The event is likely to be a boon for business across a range of fields. “As the N approaches, we expect an increase in demand for security services from the commercial and hospitality segments in both Libreville and Port-Gentil,” Pascal Wakili, director-general of security company G4S Gabon, told OBG.
Gabon has more than 300 hotels, with a total room capacity of 5300. As a result of the 2012 ACN, which required the construction of several hotels including La Résidence, Le Nomad, La Résidence Hôtelière du Phare, Onomo and Etoile d’Or to accommodate visitors, half of the country’s accommodation is located in Libreville. In addition, many ageing high-end hotels have been renovated in recent years. Hotel Okoumé Palace, bought by the Gabonese investment group Wali Hotels and Resorts in 2012, underwent renovation works at an estimated cost of $40m. The Okoumé Palace management contract was awarded to the Carlson Rezidor group in 2012 for a period of 20 years, and the hotel recently re-opened under the Radisson Blue brand. With a total of 470 rooms and 13 conference rooms, the hotel is expected to be the cornerstone of Libreville’s MICE development strategy.
Wali Hotels and Resorts also acquired two Méridien hotels, the 250-room Méridien Re-Ndama in Libreville and the 80-room Méridien Mandji in Port-Gentil, which are set to be upgraded. In the lead up to the 2017 ACN, a number of new hotels are expected to spring up in the four cities that will host the tournament, especially in Port-Gentil and Oyem, which did not take part in the event in 2012. However, development of new hotels is still hindered by bureaucracy. “Investors bring up the difficult access to land in Libreville or in remote areas as the main hurdle for the development of tourist projects,” Ebang told OBG. “Access to land is one of the main challenges the country is looking to overcome for the development of tourism zones in coming years.”
Hotel Rating System
In the lead up to the 2012 ACN, authorities put in place a hotel classification system, which is supervised by the General Directorate of Hospitality and Hotels. First implemented in Libreville, the programme has been expanded across the country. However, authorities are working on a new hotel classification scheme, which is based on a star-rating system, in order to improve the quality of services offered in Gabonese hotels. “As we are hosting the 2017 ACN tournament, we are looking to boost good practices in Gabonese hotels, further focus on the importance of service quality and establish a new system of classification with better control mechanisms,” Ebang told OBG.
Authorities launched an online e-visa service in July 2015, with visitors now able to request their visa via an electronic platform. The lengthy visa application process in place before the new service was considered one of the main impediments for visitors, and authorities expect the introduction of the new service to improve the country’s attractiveness as a tourism destination. According to local press, the application processing time is 72 hours. “Given Gabon’s ambitions to organise major international events such as the 2017 ACN, e-visas will simultaneously serve as a facilitation instrument for visitors and a way to ensure security through reinforced traceability,” Daniel Ona Onda, former prime minister, told local media.
In a bid to stimulate foreign investment in the sector, Gabonese authorities established the Tourism Investment Code in 2000, which provides a range of tax exemptions for foreign investors during the first eight years of operation, including tax-free imports, and other administrative incentives. In particular, tourism operators are allowed access to foreign currency and can freely transfer currency within the Economic Community of Central African States. The 2013 Finance Act added new provisions for investment projects above CFA800m (€1.2m), which are exempt from import taxes and duties on equipment during the first five years of operations and pay tax on only half of their taxable income for the following five years.
One of the main obstacles for the development of tourism in Gabon has been the lack of air connectivity and relatively high prices of flights. Around 20 international carriers operate in Gabon, including Air France, Royal Air Maroc, Ethiopian Airlines, Turkish Airlines, Lufthansa and South African Airways, alongside African carriers such as Senegal Airlines, Trans Air Congo, Air Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya Airways, CEIBA Intercontinental, Camair-Co, ASKY and Air Burkina. “Since the bankruptcy of Air Gabon in 2011, prices of flight tickets have been kept structurally high, which hinders the development of leisure tourism,” Ebang told OBG. “A national airline could help Gabon raise its image as a major ecotourism destination.”
In August 2015 the creation of a new low-cost airline, Gabon Flyafrica.com, was announced. The new low cost carrier, FlyAfrica, is reported to be looking to begin operations through a partnership with the Gabonese government. Based on initial announcements, the company would be providing fares averaging CFA15,000 (€22.50) for Port-Gentil to Libreville and CFA150,000 (€225) for a Libreville-to-Paris flight, yet little progress has been made so far. The authorities are also seeking to attract new airlines to boost competition. In August 2015 Gabon’s Civil Aviation Authority signed an open skies agreement with the UAE, paving the way for unrestricted flights between the two countries by their national carriers. Qatar Airways has announced it will start operating six new routes to African cities, including Libreville, in 2017. A new air route between Lagos in Nigeria and Libreville via Port Harcourt was also launched by Nigerian Arik Air in February 2016.
Several local companies, including Allégiance, Nationale Régionale Transport and Afric Aviation, also operate domestic flights. Despite a drop in activity in 2015, the domestic market has been growing steadily in recent years, with the expansion of internal routes. Ahead of the 2017 ACN, Afric Aviation introduced a route connecting Libreville to Oyem and is looking to open new routes in 20 African countries in the medium term.
Access To Parks
As part of the PSGE, authorities have put in motion an infrastructure development plan to bolster economic development in remote areas. As such, some parks have seen improved accessibility due to the development of road networks. “Access to some of the national parks has been improved via the completion of roads such as the highway from Libreville to Mouila, which eased access to Batéké Plateaux, or the stretch between Gamba and Tchibanga, which improved accessibility for Loango South and Mayumba parks. Similarly, railway infrastructure upgrade works have helped reduce frequent delays and ease access to Lopé park,” Aristide Kassangoye, director of tourism at the ANPN, told OBG. “However, direct access to most national parks from the main roads remains an obstacle for visitors. Further supporting infrastructure must be developed to better connect the parks with major road infrastructure,” he added. In 2015 just 2500 tourists visited Gabon’s national parks, according to the ANPN.
Enhanced connectivity, e-visas and the development of natural parks all bode well for the future of Gabon tourism. In addition to boosting the MICE segment, authorities are looking to build a high-end ecotourism offer and extend the stay of business travellers. As a major regional event, the 2017 ACN should give the sector a major boost, especially with regard to hotel capacity. However, further work to address obstacles, including a lack of qualified staff, insufficient transport links to parks and poaching activities, remains crucial to developing the industry.