Lee White, Managing Director, National Agency for National Parks (Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux, ANPN): Interview

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 Lee White, Managing Director, National Agency for National Parks (Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux, ANPN)

Interview: Lee White

How do you see the tourism sector evolving?

LEE WHITE: There are three primary tourism sectors here in Gabon. When you look at the tourism statistics, most of the visitors coming to the country are business tourists. They are visiting Gabon in a professional capacity and it is a rule that business tourists do not travel much around the country, instead sticking to Libreville and Port-Gentil.

The second market we are looking at is event tourism, particularly in light of the organisation of the New York Forum Africa in 2015 and the Africa Cup of Nations in 2017. We are convinced that Gabon can be a regional hub, as it is centrally located and has been the most stable country in the region for a long time. Gabon’s third major segment is geo-tourism. Geo-tourism is a sustainable tourism segment with a focus on nature, culture, cuisine and music. There are different tourism niches for which Gabon boasts comparative advantages – such as bird watching, with the presence of over 700 species, many of which are difficult to see elsewhere. The country possesses significant diversity, with some 60 ethnic groups, and the masks of these peoples inspired the artwork of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso.

Nature is our main competitive edge and Gabon has many unique geographical features, such as pristine rainforest, incredible waterfalls, 60% of the world’s remaining rainforest elephants and 30% of the world’s gorillas. Natural parks are the foundation of this ecological capital. We want to integrate everybody into the economy of these parks and we want this industry to work for all Gabonese.

Our vision for nature tourism is that in 15 years time we will have 100,000 visitors annually. During the next five years, we will build 10 to 12 hotels, which will be able to accommodate 10,000 people. Then there is going to be an exponential increase as we scale up. We have to recruit qualified people to staff these new lodges and be the guides in the forest as we position ourselves as a destination. We also need to develop flagship projects. The fact that Aman Resorts has chosen Gabon as its first investment in a sub-Saharan country says a great deal about the future potential of Gabon.

What are some of the challenges facing management of the country’s national parks?

WHITE: The biggest challenge we have is a capacity issue. The parks were created in 2007, so there is not the long operational history like you see in Kenya or South Africa, where operators have 50 years of experience. At first, we had 60 people working in the parks. Over the last five years that number has increased to 650, but we need 1500 people to manage the parks efficiently and professionally. At the same time, we are facing two threats to the parks. In the north we face cross-border poaching from Cameroon. Between 2004 and 2011, we lost over 10,000 elephants due to poaching. The other challenge is illegal fishing, notably in the south. There are over 200 trawlers operating illegally in the waters of Congo, which they have completely overfished, and those are now trying to cross into Gabon.

Furthermore, there are always financial challenges for parks. The government has significantly increased the budget of the ANPN, so we have cars, planes and people, however, this is still not enough to efficiently protect the parks.

Fundraising remains a key challenge. The government is putting more money into parks but the parks we are managing have a value that extends beyond the borders of Gabon. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy said the rainforest is a global good. We believe in the importance of rainforests, so we manage the parks not only for Gabon, but for the international community. We think it is dignified to expect the international community to partner with us to ensure the preservation of this natural treasure.

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