OBG talks to Alan Bernstein, Executive Chairman, Sustainable Forestry Management Africa

Alan Bernstein, Executive Chairman, Sustainable Forestry Management Africa

Interview: Alan Bernstein

How can the country benefit from increased global demand for ecotourism?

ALAN BERNSTEIN: First, it is essential to understand that Gabon’s landscape is substantially untouched. If the right resources are found and the right facilities built, the country will have the capacity to handle very high-value tourism. It is important to build upon what Gabon can currently offer in terms of scheduled flights and in-country logistics. The country can, at present, quite easily establish a carefully designed circuit to accommodate guests on organised safaris at two or three destinations over a period of seven to 10 days. The focus on ecotourism should take advantage of Gabon’s natural landscape through informative and conservation-based tours. Itineraries should include the country’s forests, estuaries, rivers and marine habitats, which are home to 30,000 forest elephants, 25,000 tropical forest gorillas, and the world’s largest population of leatherback turtles.

How big of a constraint on ecotourism is the lack of transport infrastructure?

BERNSTEIN: The lack of infrastructure in the country has actually presented an opportunity for conservation-based tourism. Gabon’s pristine wilderness needs to be protected and conserved, and the tourism sector has a role to play in this. Tourism is always a double-edged sword in the sense that it is easy to slide from a value-added component of the economy to the destruction of habitat.

High-value ecotourism creates awareness that acts as an important form of passive conservation and that can complement active efforts to preserve the environment. This segment also has a multiplier effect in that it generates capital and jobs. Lodges with the capacity to host 12 to 20 guests do not require significant infrastructure or even highly developed hospitality skills. However, the presence of supporting infrastructure, such as food markets, general stores, maintenance facilities and airports, is essential, hence the need for controlled and sustainable development of mining, agribusiness and forestry activities.

To what extent is there a shortage of qualified staff working in ecotourism?

BERNSTEIN: With regards to tour guides, there is need for in-depth training. At the moment, there are very few in Africa’s rainforests capable of routinely delivering a conservation-based, high-end tourism experience, so it will be necessary to persuade the many skilled botanists, biologists and zoologists based in Gabon and the Congo Basin to assist in providing training for eco-tourism guides.

What incentives are required to develop the industry and attract the private sector?

BERNSTEIN: There are certain incentives, just like any other sector, that the tourism industry requires: capital investment incentives and tax relief during the start-up years, certainty regarding foreign exchange remittances, and the ability to employ foreigners without much difficulty. Civil aviation and being able to move tourists around safely, comfortably and quickly is also something that must be developed. Overall, the kind of support needed is really very basic and involves ‘lightening’ bureaucratic hurdles and stimulating capacity to attract the hospitality firms. There is also a need for a strong environmental code that ensures policing of national parks, both for the personal safety of guests and to prevent poaching and illegal logging. Gabon is well served in this area. A degree of exclusivity must be provided to maintain the conservation-tourism integrity of the guest experience, and the quality of concession rights should be carefully thought through and defended. Security of tenure in sustainable development projects is also important, and concession arrangements capable of attracting a variety of operators to Gabon’s 13 national parks, as the industry would benefit from having a wide range of firms, which would create more competition.

Anchor text: 
Alan Bernstein

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The Report: Gabon 2012

Tourism chapter from The Report: Gabon 2012

Cover of The Report Gabon 2012

The Report

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