Gabon restructures tourism to boost visitor numbers

Developing the tourism sector in Gabon has become a growing priority for authorities as they aim to diversify the country’s economy. Investments have primarily targeted upgrading infrastructure and developing high-end ecotourism under the country’s Green Gabon strategy for sustainable development. As the state partners with the private sector to develop products that capitalise on the country’s natural attributes, the sector is poised for expansion and a rising contribution to GDP.

Visitor Numbers

The government aims to increase visitor numbers to 100,000 tourists a year by 2020, an ambitious goal since the total number of visitors to the country between 2006 and 2011 was 100,000. Though the majority of visitors to Gabon travel for professional purposes – business tourists represented about 84% of visitors in 2013 – opportunities for developing luxury tourism projects to entice business visitors to lengthen their stay are helping the country to establish its niche in the region. While most visitors stay in the capital, Libreville, or Port-Gentil, the centre of Gabon’s oil sector, developments in the national parks are raising the country’s profile as a destination for natural attractions and high-end hospitality.

Many tourists visiting Gabon come from other countries in the region, notably the Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon, which together account for about 32% of arrivals. Visitors from Cameroon account for the largest market source (17.5%). Passenger traffic through Gabon’s main international airport, Libreville’s Leon M’ba International Airport, indicate a steady increase in arrivals from destinations outside of the Economic Community of Central African States (Communauté Économique et Monétaire des États de l’Afrique Centrale, CEMAC) in recent years, reaching a total of 469,762 in 2014, nearly double the total in 2006, which stood at 239,729. Meanwhile, some 98,855 passengers were travelling to and from other CEMAC states in 2014, up 10.9% year-on-year (y-o-y).

Sector Performance

The World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) estimates the direct contribution of travel and tourism to Gabon’s economy at CFA97.7bn (€146.55m), or 1% of total GDP, in 2014. This is forecast to rise by 5.2% in 2015 and at an average rate of 4.7% annually between 2015 and 2025. The council put the industry’s total contribution to the country’s economy at CFA237bn (€355.5m), or 2.4% of GDP, in 2014 and forecasts this to rise by 5.8% in 2015 and 4.6% annually up to 2025.

The number of jobs supported directly by travel and tourism fell by 12.5% y-o-y to 3500 in 2014, representing 0.8% of total employment in Gabon. While this is expected to remain unchanged in 2015, the workforce should rise to about 6000 jobs or 1.1% of total national employment by 2025. Meanwhile, the industry’s total contribution to national employment in 2014, including jobs indirectly supported by travel and tourism, reached 2.1% or 8500 jobs, and is expected to rise by 5% in 2015 and 4.2% annually to 13,000 jobs in 2025 for a total contribution of 2.6%.

While in 2014 visitor exports generated CFA6.8bn (€10.2m), only 0.1% of total exports, this is predicted to grow by 2.1% annually to reach CFA8.7bn (€13.05m) by 2025. Meanwhile, investment in the sector, at CFA43.5bn (€65.25m) in 2014, accounted for 1.9% of total investment, and this too is forecast to increase to CFA56.4bn (€84.6m), or 1.5% of total investment, over the next 10 years.

Sector Potential

Though the sector’s economic contribution remains small, more recognition of the industry’s importance for economic development is expected to generate growth in coming years as authorities focus on diversifying the country’s economy. While development has been limited by insufficient infrastructure, growth in recent years has been primarily driven by improvements to transport infrastructure, hotel expansion and increased international connectivity. Efforts to improve and expand Gabon’s transport network are creating new opportunities for future growth in tourism.

Government Strategy

Tourism development is part of Gabon’s plan for economic growth, as outlined in the country’s Emerging Gabon development strategy for economic diversification. Through the Green Gabon component of the strategy, authorities are working to stimulate growth in the sector while also prioritising sustainable development. The focus is on developing a high-end ecotourism segment adapted for a specific clientele.

As part of the national strategy, the government set out a plan for tourism development from 2012-16. The main objectives are to promote a high-quality image of the country; improve marketing capabilities to develop the sector; increase investment levels in high-quality accommodation; promote Gabon as a tourism destination in key business and ecotourism markets; expand access by increasing the availability of competitively priced flights; and upgrade hospitality services. While implementation of the sector’s operational plan is ongoing, the government bodies responsible for sector development were restructured in early 2015. Gabon Tour, the agency formerly responsible for promoting tourism, was replaced by the Gabonese Agency for the Development and Promotion of Tourism and Hospitality (Agence Gabonaise de Développement et de la Promotion du Tourisme et de l’Hôtellerie, Agatour). Agatour is responsible for promoting tourism, coordinating development initiatives and managing state-owned hotels across the country, formerly a responsibility of the General Directorate of Hospitality and Hotels.

Conservation-Based Tourism

The economic benefits of conservation are key to the government’s strategy for tourism development. State plans to develop the industry focus largely on the country’s network of national parks, created in 2002. Comprised of 13 parks, the protected areas account for a combined area of about 3m ha, representing 11% of the country’s territory. In addition to the national parks, Gabon has nine Ramsar sites, which protect wetlands according to an international convention, as well as a network of wildlife reserves and a developing system of marine parks. Combined, these protected areas cover 21% of Gabonese territory. In 2003 the National Parks Council was established to draft legislation for the parks, followed by the creation of the National Agency of National Parks (Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux, ANPN) in 2007, which is responsible for managing the network of parks. Initially designed to preserve biodiversity, plans to develop ecotourism in the parks first took shape in 2008.

Parks Development

While the ANPN’s mandate is to protect, manage and valorise national parks. While it has historically focused on protection, the agency is increasingly participating in the development of tourist products, allowing visitors into areas while ensuring they are preserved. In 2014 the ANPN standardised park entry fees at CFA5000 (€7.50) for a day pass to any national park. The agency’s budget was reduced considerably in 2014. While the state had initially committed to allocating CFA9bn (€13.5m) to the agency in 2013, only CFA3bn (€4.5m) was issued. The budget for 2015 was set at CFA5bn (€8.5bn), but the reduction has not delayed the agency’s work, and ongoing and future initiatives are being undertaken despite the shortfall.

Although the network of national parks is a main focus of the industry’s development plans, tourism in the parks is taking off slowly. In recent years, authorities have concentrated on increasing access to the parks and reducing poaching. The state’s programme to open the interior of the country by improving transport infrastructure is expected to boost growth in tourism, notably by facilitating visits to parks that are currently difficult to access.

Parks Accomodation

In addition to upgrading transport infrastructure for better access, developing the services available within the parks is also a key component of efforts to boost tourism. While most parks feature at least one form of accommodation, availability is poised for expansion as two public-private partnership (PPP) projects advance. In 2012 Singapore-based Aman Resorts, a luxury hotels group, entered an agreement with the Gabonese Strategic Investment Fund (Fonds Gabonais d’Investissements Stratégiques, FGIS), Gabon’s sovereign wealth fund, to build six hotels and resorts over five years. Development of the first phase is under way with a lodge in Pongara under construction and a 30-suite hotel in Libreville along with a resort in Loango set to follow. Construction of this stage is being carried out by Luxury Green Resorts, a company created as a PPP between FGIS and Aman Resorts to manage the project. Subsequent plans include hotels and resorts in the Lopé, Ivindo and Batéké Plateaux national parks.

The ANPN formed another PPP in 2013 through a conservation tourism concession agreement with Sustainable Forestry Management (SFM) Safari Gabon, the local subsidiary of the Mauritius-based conservation and development company SFM Africa. The company has plans to develop a luxury ecotourism lodge in Mayumba national park.

Wildlife Protection

Tourism development is carefully planned in order to prevent harm to animals or damage to the country’s biodiversity, part of the government’s strategy to favour low numbers and target the high-end segment. While illegal trafficking of wildlife and poaching continue to pose a threat to conservation efforts and tourism development in Gabon, notably in remote border areas, considerable advances have been made in reducing the problem. In 2013 research conducted by the ANPN in conjunction with international conservation organisations revealed that some 11,000 forest elephants had been killed, likely by poachers for their ivory tusks. While the situation has improved substantially in recent years, with a reduction in poaching in much of the country, the problem persists in the Minkébé national park, located in the north-east. In addition to elephants, pangolins are a target for poaching and illegal trafficking as well as a number of other animals killed for meat.

The ANPN is working to overcome the challenges associated with wildlife protection. Efforts include a force of some 500 “eco-guards” and a canine unit, trained to sniff out illegal animal products at major exit points of the country. The initiatives are seeing positive results, according to Christian Johnson-Ogoula, technical director for the ANPN. In April 2015 the EU announced CFA1.54bn (€2.3m) in funding to support wildlife protection in Gabon’s parks, with the funds slated to finance surveillance planes to better monitor poaching activity.

Marine Parks

The protection of biodiversity and wildlife in Gabon is expanding following President Ali Bongo Ondimba’s announcement at the World Parks Congress in November 2014 of plans to create a network of marine parks. The initiative supports the Gabon Blue strategy, which focuses on the sustainable management of maritime zones, under the national economic development plan. The strategy aims to set aside 20% of the country’s 885 km of coastline as protected areas. No commercial fishing will be authorised within the limits of the protected maritime zones in an effort to preserve biodiversity along the coast. Plans include a 27, 000-sq-km extension of Mayumba national park, one of the largest land-sea parks in the world. Ten speedboats and a surveillance plane donated by the UAE to Gabonese authorities will help monitor the new marine parks and patrol territorial waters.

Investment

The government’s focus on developing high-end tourism and the arrival of international investors like Aman Resorts underline the potential for development in the industry. While efforts have recently been focused on getting the projects of these two initial investors under way, authorities are now seeking to attract additional investors to develop Gabon’s tourism industry. While continuing to pursue the goal of environmental sustainability, the government is keen to collaborate with more private operators to develop new resorts and hotels as well as the country’s transport infrastructure, connecting Libreville with natural attractions located in remote areas. Government incentives outlined in the 2013 finance law include tax and duty exemptions on machine and equipment imports for firms investing over CFA800m (€1.2m) in the tourism and hospitality industry. Sector investment projects are also exempt from corporate tax for the first five years of operation and taxed on only half of their taxable income for the next five years. Meanwhile, Agatour is working to attract more investment to the industry through additional PPPs. While recent efforts to develop the sector have been concentrated on the network of national parks, the country’s extensive coastal areas remain comparatively under-developed and represent an area of opportunity for future growth, particularly as transport infrastructure improves.

Accessibility

The success of efforts to expand tourism will be dependent on the improvement of transport networks. While some national parks are accessible by road and even rail, dense forests covering much of the country make many attractions challenging to access. The internal airline network provides one of the key methods of transport available to tourists. Three carriers currently offer domestic flights, Afric Aviation, NRT and Allégiance, with the first of these carrying 140,794 passengers, the most of any domestic carrier, in 2014.

Investment in the country’s road network is expected to improve accessibility in coming years Reaching Gabon from abroad is also becoming easier and less costly with the arrival of new airlines and expansion of international flight services in recent years. There are currently 16 airlines operating flights through Libreville. Major airlines offering regular flights into the capital include Air France, Ethiopian Airlines, Turkish Airways, South African Airlines and, the newest addition, Royal Air Maroc. However, cost and availability of international transport continue to limit industry growth. “Gabon is still an expensive destination for international travellers because of high flight costs. We are working to attract additional airlines to Libreville in order to stimulate greater competition and lower prices,” Ogoula Barisse, former director-general of the General Directorate of Tourism, told OBG.

Domestic Market

While most domestic travel continues to be centred on visiting friends and relatives, government efforts to expand domestic tourism are expected to provide investment opportunities going forward. The lack of available statistics has made it hard to appreciate the extent and expansion of domestic tourism.

Johnson-Ogoula said, “We know from our guides’ observations that the number of local visitors to the national parks is increasing, notably in Pongara, Akanda and Lopé, though it is has been difficult to confirm stats in the past. But the means of tracking data on visitors are being improved.” In collaboration with the General Directorate of Tourism, the ANPN has put in place a system to gather such data from the parks in early 2015, which will help provide a better understanding of the number of visitors to each park and where they are coming from.

Government projects to develop the country’s road network are also expected to help support the expansion of domestic tourism. Major road construction projects expected to impact the tourism industry include the new road that will connect Port-Gentil to Libreville, a journey that is currently only possible by sea and air. The ANPN is also working to develop mid-range accommodation in Lopé and Akanda national parks that will target local visitors. The agency installed lodges with a total of 40 beds, soon to be expanded to 60, in the Monts de Cristal National Park, which will accommodate student groups from Libreville starting in 2015.

Workforce

The importance of training industry personnel is gaining attention as Gabon seeks to carve out a niche in the high-end tourism market. “Finding qualified personnel is a challenge in Gabon because training opportunities are limited, though there has been improvement in recent years,” Pauline Gnimi Mambo, public relations director at the Méridien Re-Ndama hotel, told OBG.

The ANPN is responsible for training guides for the national parks and completed its most recent training session in 2014. The session was delivered in collaboration with the Wildlife Conservation Society, a non-governmental organisation working in Gabon since 1985, and trained 15 new eco-guides. One of these guides was recruited by SFM Africa.

Creating jobs in the sector is also an objective of Green Gabon. Ensuring that training focuses on sustainable development is a priority, according to Barisse. “The ANPN puts sustainable development at the centre of its training programmes and we are working to develop a similar framework in which tourism management and hospitality training initiatives also focus on the importance of conservation for the future of the sector,” he said.

Outlook

The industry’s potential has garnered more attention from the government and private operators in recent years. Gabon’s focus on promoting ecotourism and luxury options should boost the sector’s contribution to GDP as current plans for development, notably in the national parks, is underway. Business travellers are expected to continue to account for the largest share of visitors, though the country has the potential to become a choice tourist destination for high-end ecotourism in the medium to long term. Improving training of industry personnel will help the sector to raise service levels to meet expectations of the high-end market. Ongoing improvements to transport and accommodation infrastructure will also help support sector growth.

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The Report: Gabon 2015

Tourism chapter from The Report: Gabon 2015

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