In spite of the country’s wealth of natural attractions, Gabon’s tourism industry has remained small in both absolute terms and the contribution it makes to the local economy, in part because the oil sector formed the country’s main focus for many years. As oil output declines, the government is looking to encourage growth in the industry, with the aim of developing high-end and luxury ecotourism under the rubric of the Green Gabon strategy for sustainable development. As a result, the sector is set to expand in coming years, pushing up its contribution to GDP.
According to a report based on tourism satellite accounts published in 2011, the total number of tourists in Gabon between 2006 and 2011 stood at 100,000. According to the report, France was the largest tourism market for the country during the period, accounting for 35% of tourists, followed by Cameroon (9%) and the UK (7%). Some 59% of visits made to the country were business trips, and a further 8.4% were for conferences or meetings. Around 13% were for the purposes of leisure or holidays, while 10% were family visits. The report said that most tourism activities in the country consisted of weekend trips to tourist sites made by European expatriates.
No new data based on the country’s satellite accounts has been published since then, and neither the Gabonese authorities nor traditional sources like the UN’s World Tourism Organisation publish annual up-to-date statistics on tourism arrivals or receipts. However, one indicator since 2011 as regards foreign arrivals is the amount of passenger traffic through Libreville’s Léon Mba airport, Gabon’s main international airport. Some 441,404 passengers travelling to and from international destinations outside of the Economic Community of Central African States (Communauté Économique et Monétaire des Etats de l’Afrique Centrale, CEMAC) region passed through the airport in 2013, up 5.8% from the 417,045 in 2012, following a 13.3% increase the previous year. Around 89,100 passengers travelling through the airport were heading to and from other CEMAC states (up 9.1% from 81,625 the previous year). Foreign passenger numbers, including CEMAC travellers, have grown at a compound annual growth rate of 9.3% since 2009, or 9.8% excluding CEMAC traffic.
The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) puts the direct contribution of travel and tourism to Gabonese GDP at CFA97.2bn (€145.8m) or around 1.2% of total GDP in 2013, and forecasts it will rise by 9.5% in 2014 and at an average rate of 7.3% annually between 2014 and 2024, when it predicts the industry’s direct contribution to GDP will have risen to 1.8%. The body put the sector’s total (direct and indirect) contribution to the economy at CFA228.1bn (€342.15m) or 2.8% of GDP in 2013 and forecast this to rise by 10.1% in 2014 and 6.9% annually in the period to 2024. These figures rank Gabon in 180th place out of 184 countries in terms of the industry’s contribution to the economy; however, the council forecasts that the country will be the second fastest-growing tourism market (in terms of economic output) in 2014 and the ninth fastest over the coming decade. The council put investment in the sector in 2013 at CFA40.9bn (€61.45m), which it forecast to rise by 11.4% in 2014 before falling back to 1.9% annually in the years to 2024. The sector is also a small contributor to employment: according to the WTTC, it directly accounted for around 4000 jobs or 1% of total employment in 2014, while the total number of jobs (direct and indirect) generated by the sector stood at 9500 (2.5%). GOVERNMENT STRATEGY: The government is seeking to develop the industry and substantially boost tourism numbers to 100,000 tourists a year by 2020, a significant jump given that the total number of visitors over a span of five years, between 2006 and 2011, just reached 100,000. As part of the country’s Green Gabon plan – one of three elements of the wider Emerging Gabon development strategy – the government is focusing on developing high-end ecotourism and does not wish to bring mass tourism to the country. Under Emerging Gabon, the government has adopted an “operational tourism plan” for 2012-16, with five key goals: promoting a high-quality image of Gabon, based around Green Gabon; boosting the country’s capabilities in marketing and developing the tourism sector; raising levels of investment in high-quality accommodation; boosting the promotion of the country as a tourism destination in key business and ecotourism markets; and improving access to the country by increasing the availability of competitively priced flights, as well as improving hospitality services in the country.
Key government bodies involved in the development of the sector include Gabon Tour, which is responsible for tourism promotion, primarily through exhibitions at international tourism fairs in Europe. In addition, 2011 saw a presidential decree for the establishment of a National Agency for Tourism Development (Agence Nationale de Développement du Tourisme, ANDT) to coordinate government action on the development of the sector, though as of July 2014 the agency existed on paper only (see Analysis).
A great deal of Gabon’s tourism appeal lies in its natural attractions and enormous biodiversity. Indeed, based on these factors the country has the potential to become one of the leading ecotourism destinations globally. It hosts not only the second-largest rainforest in the world, but also the largest populations of forest elephants, gorillas, chimpanzees, hippos and nesting leatherback turtles. As a result, the country is frequently cited as a potential African version of Costa Rica (which attracts large numbers of North American ecotourists).
The government’s plans to develop tourism are therefore based in large part around the country’s 13 national parks. These were created in 2002 by late president Omar Bongo Ondimba and have a combined area of around 3m ha, accounting for around 11% of Gabonese territory. Following their establishment, in 2003 a National Parks Council was established to draw up legislation regarding the parks, and in 2007 the National Parks law was passed, and the National Agency of National Parks (Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux, ANPN) was created to manage them. The agency is also responsible for managing the Wonga Wongué presidential reserve, which is not open to the public.
Further into the Wild
According to Christian Johnson-Ogoula, deputy technical director for the ANPN, studies are currently under way regarding the creation of additional new national parks through the designation of more Gabonese territory as park land, though there is currently no timetable in place for this.
The agency had a budget of CFA16.3bn (€24.45m) in 2013, a figure that has grown rapidly during recent years, up from less than CFA2bn (€3m) in 2009. Of the 2013 total, CFA8.86bn (€13.3m) was given by the Gabonese authorities and CFA7.43bn (€11.15m) came from various donors. Some CFA9.16bn (€13.74m) of the budget was allocated to covering operating expenses, of which more than 90% was spent during the course of the year. However, at the time of writing only about 8% of the CFA7.13bn (€10.7m) allocated for investment in the national parks had been disbursed.
The largest of the 13 parks is Minkébé, at around 7560 sq km in size. The park has one of the most pristine major forests in Africa. However, it is currently difficult to reach, making it largely off-limits for visitors. The next largest park is La Lopé, at 4970 sq km, which is also the most popular park with visitors – attracting between 3000 and 5000 visitors a year, according to JohnsonOgoula – due to its large wildlife population, including elephants and apes of various types, and its accessibility by train from Libreville. Third in size is Moukalaba-Doudou National Park, another accessible park also known for its elephants and apes. Other notable parks include Akanda and Plateaux Batéké, famous for their diverse bird populations; Ivindo and Waka parks, both known for their dramatic waterfalls; and Loango in the south of the country, which hosts a population of surfing hippos and where elephants and buffalo can frequently be seen walking along the beach.
Although they are the centrepiece of the industry’s development plans, tourism in the parks has yet to fully take off. “We have not yet reached the point of fully promoting tourism in the national parks and have still to launch some activities,” said Johnson-Ogoula. “Before that we want to bring down levels of poaching, in particular in the north-east, of the country. Some of the parks are also still very hard to visit as roads to them barely exist,” he added. That said, the authorities have embarked on an ambitious programme to build and upgrade transport infrastructure that will make more parts of the country accessible (see Analysis and Transport chapter). Parks that can currently be visited are Akanda, Pongara, Ivindo, Loango, La Lopé, Mayumba, Moukalaba-Doudou and the Batéké Plateaux.
Most parks already have at least one lodge or other form of accommodation available. Pongara, one of the most popular parks due to its proximity to Libreville and its leatherback turtle population, hosts four lodges, while La Lopé has bungalows with a total of 60 rooms.
The availability of such accommodation is set to receive a substantial boost in parks, following the government’s conclusion of two public-private partnerships (PPPs) with hospitality firms in recent years. In January 2012 Singapore-based Aman Resorts, a luxury hotels group that owns and runs 25 resorts in Asia, Europe, North Africa and the US, signed a memorandum of understanding with the country’s sovereign wealth fund, the Strategic Investment Fund (SIF), for the construction of six hotels and resorts, comprising 140 rooms, over a five year period. These will consist of a 30-suite hotel in the capital as well as hotels and resorts in the Loango, Pongara, La Lopé, Ivindo and Batéké Plateaux national parks, with a mix of hotel rooms, suites, villas and luxury tents. The first stage of the project will see the construction of the Libreville hotel and a resort made up of 20 luxury hotels in Loango in the south of the country and a 30-villa hotel on the Phare de Ngombe island in Pongara, near the capital. Aman will partner up with Luxury Green resorts, a local firm in which the SIF owns a stake, for the construction, which will involve an investment of around €80m.
In February 2013 the ANPN signed a conservation tourism concession agreement in the form of a PPP with Sustainable Forestry Management (SFM) Safari Gabon, a subsidiary of Mauritius-based landscape conservation and development firm SFM Africa. The agreement will see the creation of a circuit of luxury, sustainable safari lodges, starting with two lodges in Loanga and Pongara national parks that will aim to attract 2000 visitors a year. The firm will also develop an institute for the study of great apes in Loanga, managed by the Max Plank Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. These will be followed by additional lodges in Doudou, La Lopé, Mayumba and Moukalaba National Parks. The first phase of the initiative will involve investment of €10m. The agreement is linked to a larger deal with SFM Africa involving forestry, agribusiness, fisheries and other forms of land-use in the Grande Mayumba area of Nyanga Province in the south of the country, under the umbrella of Grande Mayumba Development.
Johnson Ogoula told OBG that the projects will have an important impact on tourism in Gabon. “They will help to attract the kind of clients these firms already have in other parts of the world, and the deal with SFM will create a circuit of places to visit, which is an easily marketable product,” he said. “The deals will also have a positive impact on employment in and around parks by bringing in additional visitors. The parks mainly employ locals and there will be increased demand for local handicrafts, for example.” Nevertheless, local media have reported some opposition among nearby communities to the construction of at least one of the new facilities, the Aman Resorts in Pongara.
In addition to the national parks, popular tourist sites near Libreville include Pointe Denis, a resort with pristine beaches that borders Pongara National Park on a peninsula a short boat ride across the Gabon Estuary from the capital and hosts a number of hotels and restaurants, and beaches at É sterias Cape, around 20 km from the city. Away from Libreville, popular sites include the city of Lambaréné, some 250 km from the capital, which sits on Lake Evaro and hosts the renowned Albert Schweitzer hospital ( established in 1913 and still a pioneer in researching and combatting malaria), and which Johnson-Ogoula told OBG attracts around 3000 foreign visitors annually.
Although Gabon has some of the most pristine rainforest in the world, protecting the country’s wildlife, one of its major tourist attractions, can nonetheless be a serious challenge. In 2013 it was discovered that around 11,000 of the country’s forest elephant population – roughly a third of the previous estimated total – was missing, likely killed by ivory poachers. “We are still at ‘war’ with professional poachers from Cameroon and Congo who are present in parts of the north-east,” Johnson-Ogoula told OBG. “However the situation has improved overall, with a reduction in poaching in much of the country in recent years.”
Other species are also the target of illegal hunting. “There is a problem with the poaching and illegal traffic of pangolins [a small, endangered mammal also known as scaly anteaters] that is driven by demand from the Asian market,” said Johnson-Ogoula. “Some local populations around parks still kill some animals for meat, which is against the law but is sometimes part of local tradition,” he added, arguing that there is a need for awareness campaigns to inform local populations of the prohibition of such hunting.
To combat the problem of illegal hunting, the ANPN has a force of around 500 “eco-guards”, some of whom have been trained by the US military and who undertake patrols of protected areas on foot and by vehicle. “The numbers are far from being enough and we want to recruit more, though we require the means to do so,” said Johnson-Ogoula. He told OBG that in spring 2014 the agency had also acquired a plane to carry out surveillance and had recently launched new canine units to detect illegal animal products being transported within and out of the country.
The authorities also want to ensure that expanded tourism does not damage the country’s biodiversity or distress animals in the parks, which is part of the rationale for keeping numbers low and focusing on the upper end of the market. “In Gabon we do not want industrial tourism or for tourists to disturb wild animals by approaching them. Tourists need to observe animals while respecting them and their habitats and without compromising the country’s biodiversity,” said Albert Engonga-Bikoro, former director-general of Gabon Tour.
Alongside environmental issues, there are several challenges to boosting visitor numbers. “Among the biggest obstacles to the development of the market is the cost and availability of international transport; transport from America and Asia in particular is expensive,” said Engonga-Bikoro. “Internal transport is also a handicap, but less so, as it is better than other countries with similar levels of development. Also, using local transport can be one of the charms of travel in less developed countries,” Engonga-Bikoro said. Given the limited nature of the country’s internal road network, the main means of transport available to tourist for travel to major tourism sites are the railway and internal airline network. However, that all three carriers offering internal flights – Allégiance, NRT and Afric Aviation – are currently blacklisted by the EU on safety grounds is another obstacle to development. But the government is investing heavily in the development of local transport infrastructure – including the construction of a road linking the country’s two main cities, Libreville and Port-Gentil – which should lead to an improvement in the situation in coming years.
The government’s increased focus on developing the tourism industry points to a significant increase in sector activity over the coming years, supported by improved transport and accommodation infrastructure. However, large-scale tourism, which does not fit into government plans for an environmentally sustainable economy, is not on the cards. The speed of the sector’s development will also depend on the extent to which key obstacles can be overcome, some of which will in turn depend on political will.
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