Gabon: Building up high-end tourism
Tourism in Gabon is limited, but as part of the government’s efforts to improve diversification and reduce hydrocarbons dependency, the sector has been a target for both public and private investment in recent months. The country’s potential to draw high-end tourists is significant, given its political stability and verdant countryside, and two new projects set to launch in the coming months should help spur growth in the ecotourism industry.
In January 2012, Gabon signed a joint venture agreement with Amanresorts to build high-end ecotourism facilities in Libreville and at five of the country’s national parks. After two years of negotiations, the Singapore-based luxury hotel group was awarded contracts for the management and marketing of six hotels and lodges in key tourist areas.
The first phase of the project will include a 30-suite luxury hotel and spa in Libreville overlooking nearby Pongara National Park, a 30-bungalow lodge complex on the historic site of the Ngombe lighthouse and a high-end ecotourism camp of 20 tents in Loango National Park on the southwestern coast. Construction of these facilities is expected to begin this summer.
According to the agreement, four additional projects have been identified for the future. In the centre of the country, a 30-suite hotel in Lopé National Park and a 30-bungalow lodge complex near the Kongou Falls in Ivindo National Park are both included in the plans. An additional 10-tent lodge is planned for Loango National Park, as well as a 15-tent lodge in the Batéké Plateau National Park. Once completed, the new facilities are expected to create 500 direct jobs and to be an important attraction for international visitors.
A second joint venture with Sustainable Forestry Management Africa (SFM Africa) is set to launch during the second half of 2012. SFM Africa, a Mauritius-based company that leads integrated conservation, forestry and renewable energy projects, signed a CFA50bn (€76.2m) financing agreement with the state to develop industrial and tourism infrastructure in the southern region of Mayumba, including three to four ecotourism facilities in national parks, each of which will be able to accommodate between 16 and 20 guests.
The government and Gabon’s National Parks Agency (Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux, ANPN) have committed to develop and promote environmentally sustainable ecotourism, which should allow Gabon to commercialise its unique national environment while also protecting this critical resource.
In 2002 former President Omar Bongo set aside 30,000 sq km, or 11% of the national territory, for the creation of 13 national parks. These parks contain the greatest concentration of forest elephants on the continent with an estimated population of 74,000 in Gabon, as well as numerous species of birds, reptiles and mammals. The ANPN has also said that it will promote geotourism, a form of sustainable tourism that emphasises culture and human development in addition to appreciation of local flora and fauna, via tourism marketing events abroad, training for guides and anti-poaching efforts.
Ecotourism and geotourism are well suited to Gabon’s natural resources as well as its constraints. First, the tourism sector’s human resources are limited, although the country saw an uptick in hospitality training in advance of hosting the African Cup of Nations in January 2012. However, the demands of the ecotourism industry are specific and will require the recruitment of expert guides and environmental scientists, among others.
Gabon also lacks the infrastructure necessary to support a high-end tourism sector. In addition to limited hospitality infrastructure outside of major urban centres, the country’s transportation network presents challenges, as linkages are often unreliable. As part of its national infrastructure master plan, the government is investing heavily in transport upgrades across the board, but it will take several years for these efforts to have an effect.
A key aspect moving forward will be the government’s ability to develop infrastructure in a way that will not detract from the high-end ecotourism offering it envisages and open up access in a reasonable timeframe. As air travel in small aircraft will necessarily be part of high-end ecotourism packages to some of Gabon’s remote national parks, fuel storage facilities and distribution networks are needed for planes to refuel.
According to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), Gabon’s tourism industry accounts for 1.1% of GDP and contributes about 5000 jobs – or 1% of total jobs – to the economy. This is low compared to the continent as a whole: tourism accounted for 3.2% of Africa’s total GDP in 2011, according to the WTTC, and some 8m jobs, or 3% of total employment.
While business tourism in Gabon is well developed, local authorities estimate that there are only about 2000 leisure entries per year. Gabon will need to attract additional foreign visitors if the tourism industry is to boost the national economy and the government meets its target of hosting 100,000 tourists per year by 2020.
Despite the challenges that must be overcome, local authorities view increasing levels of private investment as a positive sign. As Lee White, the executive secretary of ANPN, told OBG, “The fact that Amanresorts has decided to invest in ecotourism is a real game changer. It will pass a very clear message to other major players in the tourist industry that Gabon has unique potential to become an important tourist destination. "
While Gabon’s tourism market has been loosely structured and much work is needed to develop more sophisticated products, the sector’s potential remains considerable. Indeed, recent announcements regarding foreign investment strongly suggest that the industry could be entering a period of significant growth.