With eight national parks and six nature reserves, representing 6.5% of the country’s land and a total of 21,038 sq km, Côte d’Ivoire is ranked among the top countries in French-speaking Africa for protected areas. Following a period of economic and political instability, the country is gradually turning to ecotourism once again, as a way of promoting sustainable development and preserving natural resources.
Further potential for ecotourism development is highlighted by the country’s expansive natural areas, such as the Comoé National Park, Taï National Park and the Mount Nimba Strict Nature Reserve, located on the borders of Guinea, Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire. These sites were classified as UNESCO World Heritage sites in the early 1980s. In addition, it was a signatory to the Convention on Wetlands, also known as the Ramsar Convention, an intergovernmental treaty that provides a framework for national action and international cooperation towards conservation and the responsible use of wetlands and their resources. Located in the country are the national parks of Azagny and Iles Ehotilé-Essouman, which are both designated Ramsar sites.
With such resources at its disposal, Côte d’Ivoire has already begun exploring ecotourism as an engine of economic growth and development. With the return of political stability and investor interest, new initiatives are emerging to attract visitors from around the globe, illustrating renewed appeal in Ivorian ecotourism. Peak attendances in the most visited parks and natural reserves of the country included the Banco National Park, with 9536 visitors in 2007, Comoé National Park, with 4500 visitors over a period of eight months in 1989, and the Aboukouamékro National Park, with 2889 visitors over a span of eight months in 1996.
The Ivorian Office for Parks and Reserves (Office Ivoirien des Parcs et Réserves, OIPR), signed a convention in February 2016, establishing a partnership with Côte d’Ivoire Tourism, the public body in charge of promoting tourism. The convention aims at developing ecotourism by taking advantage of OIPR’s 2013 ecotourism relaunch strategy. OIPR’s strategy supports the promotion of ecotourism infrastructure construction and rehabilitation, as well as the opening and renovation of hiking paths in national parks and reserves, including in particular in the national parks of Banco, Azagny and Taï. A number of ecotourism projects have been developed in collaboration with other sector stakeholders.
The Wild Chimpanzee Foundation (WCF), a Swiss NGO working to protect chimpanzees, is working to support ecotourism projects in the Taï National Park, one of which is a successful, long term monkey and chimpanzee habituation programme that is also supported by international universities. In 2015 the village of Taï welcomed 42 tourists to stay in the forest camp in another community-based project, Nature and Culture. In addition, in 2015 the WCF inaugurated the first eco-museum on Taï National Park, including a reception and information centre to welcome and assist tourists. In 2015 about 400 tourists visited the museum.
Monique Philippe, general manager of local travel agency Ivoire Voyages Tourisme told OBG, “We worked with the OIPR and other actors for over a year to develop ecotourism travel circuits in Taï, focusing on chimpanzee observation and the wide array of flora and fauna. We are hoping to exploit this niche sector in European markets and as a result obtain “The Comoé National Park, the Taï National Park and the Mount Nimba Strict Nature Reserve are classified as UNESCO World Heritage sites” returns on our investment as of 2016 or 2017.” She added, “This should contribute to the development and expansion of Ivorian ecotourism, without taking away tourists from other parks and reserves, some of which would also benefit from further development by authorities.” Private sector involvement for the expansion of ecotourism in the form of concessions – as was done in the past with the Abokouamékro National Park, and the natural parks of Azagny and Marahoué – could provide an additional boost to the sector’s expansion.
However, a number of factors, including insufficient infrastructure and maintenance, low service quality, and illegal poaching have undermined the development of ecotourism. As Marie-Reine Koné,- CEO of local travel agency AFRIC Voyages told OBG, “The challenges are such today that we cannot yet offer reliable quality safari and wildlife tours”.
Testament to its commitment to developing ecotourism, Côte d’Ivoire launched a project in August 2016 targeting the conservation of its parks and natural reserves through integrated resource management of its protected areas. The Banco National Park, located in Abidjan and spreading over more than 3400 ha of land, will be the first to benefit from this project, which aims at addressing immediate threats to the country’s biodiversity, such as deforestation and species extinction. The country’s forests are undergoing significant degradation with total forest land shrinking from 16m ha since 1960, to 3m ha today. As part of the project, the Banco National Park will be equipped with a natural pool, garden and a children’s playground in a bid to attract more visitors to the park and promote ecotourism.
In November 2016 Côte d’Ivoire became one of the 24 signatories of the first African Charter on Sustainable and Responsible Tourism, ratified during the 22nd Conference of the Parties meeting that took place in Morocco. This charter specifically addresses some of the UN Sustainable Development Goals outlined by in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Adopted in 2015, the 17 goals to be achieved within the next 15 years aim at eradicating poverty, bridging inequalities and tackling climate change. The charter itself aims at promoting sustainable tourism best practices across the continent.
The successful evolution and promotion of ecotourism projects in Taï National Park is indicative of the opportunities that lie in the investment of ecotourism in natural parks and reserves in the medium to long term. However, effective and environmentally friendly exploitation of these sites will no doubt require significant further funding, in which both public and private sectors stand to play an important role. Some obstacles are likely to disappear as overall infrastructure investments increase across the country, improving mobility and accommodation.