Although it is not a major tourism destination at present, Gabon has much to offer travellers looking for a destination off the beaten path. Located in the Congo River Basin, the country is home to some of the world’s most pristine rainforests, and has pockets of savannah and an 800-km coastline complete with fauna-rich mangroves, wetlands and magnificent beaches. Thanks in part to its small population and lack of a strong tradition of large-scale organised agriculture, its equatorial forests remain virtually untouched. As such, it is especially well suited for visitors interested in nature and ecotourism that are willing to forego some of the convenience and creature comforts of mass tourism in favour of something a bit more adventurous.
UNTAPPED POTENTIAL: That said, a lot more could be done to make the country accessible to visitors. Easing visa restrictions by introducing a visa-upon-arrival system as in major tourist destinations like Kenya, Thailand, Indonesia and Morocco would be a start, for instance, as would finding a way to reduce the prohibitively high cost of airfare.
In spite of the difficulty involved in getting there, the country’s natural assets remain undeniably impressive, and its national parks represent a vast untapped well of potential. Gabon has been lauded, and deservedly so, for setting aside over 10% of its territory in 2002, when President Omar Bongo Ondimba announced the creation of 13 national parks in the country. These parks are home to an array of wildlife, from leatherback sea turtles and African forest elephants to Western lowland gorillas and West African forest leopards. However, the nature of this heavily forested terrain is such that, in comparison to the savannahs of eastern and southern Africa, it is much more difficult to easily see significant numbers of animals. Still, there is a lucrative market for ecotourism in forest landscapes. LOPÉ NATIONAL PARK: A trip to Lopé National Park in central Gabon illustrates both the unexplored potential of the country’s parks and the challenges involved in developing ecotourism locally. The scenery in Lopé itself is impressive with a mix of rainforest and pockets of grass savannahs carved through by the Ogooué River and overshadowed by Mont Brazza. Indeed, the Lopé Okanda landscape was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2007. Activities range from elephant-watching safaris that can be taken through areas where the savannah meets the forest to a boat ride down the river to have a look at ancient etchings. A short hike up the steep face of Mont Brazza is certainly worth the splendour of the view, from which the confluence of river, equatorial rainforest and savannah can be appreciated. For those with more time, it is possible to continue farther into the park, where treks through the jungle can be organised.
PONGARA & LOANGO: For visitors with less time and a desire to see elephants, it is easier to head by boat and truck to Nyonié, on the edge of Pongara National Park. The trip through the Gabon Estuary and the mangroves, forest and savannah clearings is thoroughly enjoyable, with close-range sightings of gorillas running through the forests not unheard of. Elephant sightings on a late-afternoon safari, much like in Lopé, is all but guaranteed, and Nyonié has the added benefit of being on the beach. Loango National Park on Gabon’s southern coast is another must on the list. Its famed surfing hippos and elephants on the beach are reportedly a sight to behold. This area is said to be the most beautiful on Africa’s western coast.
GULF OF GUINEA: Beyond the country’s natural parks lies the Gulf of Guinea, to which a short boat ride from Libreville can be organised to watch humpback whales in July and August, when they migrate from the Antarctic waters to mate and give birth.
Faced with the twin threats of poaching and potential environmental damage linked to development projects, it is now more important than ever for the government to make the most of Gabon’s national parks. Investing in the development of a sustainable ecotourism industry that can benefit local communities and create jobs would be an excellent start.
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