Despite Gabon’s vaunted initiative to stimulate growth in tourism, the sector still suffers from some restrictive bottlenecks, and nowhere is that more evident than the issue of room capacity.

Business visitors to Libreville and Port-Gentil have long grappled with high prices for accommodation – even by Central African standards – while leisure visitors until recently had only the slimmest of selections for affordable stays. However, as the country begins to expand its tourism offering, which received a fillip at the start of the year from the African Nations Cup (Coupe d’Afrique des Nations, CAN) football tournament, a growing number of hoteliers have begun to take an interest in Gabon.

CONTINENTAL GROWTH: This is not a trend limited to Gabon, with international hotel brands a growing presence across Africa. New openings in recent years have included the Mövenpick in Ghana, a Radisson Blu in Senegal, Four Points by Sheraton, Ibis and Legacy in Nigeria, and Ibis in Equatorial Guinea. More are in the pipeline, with 208 agreements signed for new international hotel projects at the beginning of 2012, up from 159 a year earlier, bringing the total number of rooms to over 38,000.

Until recently, North Africa – with well-established attractions and sizeable package tourism offerings in places like Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco – traditionally accounted for the largest number of projects. However, the Arab Spring brought uncertainty to the region and slowed the pace of work.

Sub-Saharan Africa, on the other hand, has witnessed a 42% increase over 2011 in the number of planned rooms, and now accounts for 54% of planned hotels in the continent. According to W Hospitality Group, Nigeria lead hotel development in the region in 2012, with 43 hotels and 6808 rooms under contract, followed by Ghana – which has benefitted from an influx of oil-fueled investment – with 11 hotels. Surprisingly, however, Gabon came third, with eight hotels planned. The country had also jumped into the top 10 destinations for branded hotels in Africa, along with – among others – Nigeria, Ghana, Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt. This can be partly attributed to the country’s commitment to reducing its reliance on oil revenues and developing its tourism industry, particularly business tourism and ecotourism, under the Emerging Gabon strategy.

A REGIONAL CENTRE: Special focus has been turned towards Libreville under the government’s five-year tourism development plan (2012-16). The government aims to turn the city into a centre of the Monetary and Economic Community of Central Africa (Commission de la Communaute Economique et Monetaire de l’Afrique Centrale, CEMAC) region, particularly in the meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions segment. Business tourism draws the largest numbers, accounting for 59% of visitors in 2009, according to the Tourism Satellite Account’s report. However, the main hotels catering for business tourists in Libreville, Okoume Palace Hotel and Le Méridien, are in urgent need of rehabilitation and modernisation to be brought up to international hospitality standards. There are currently less than 500 rooms in Libreville meeting international standards and existing facilities lack the capacity to handle the increasing inflow of visitors.

CAPITAL MARKET: Efforts are also being made to develop and better promote tourism offerings in the capital, a purpose for which the government is expected to allocate CFA250m (€375,000).

Libreville is looking to develop leisure and cultural activities, including improving access to the capital’s two closest national parks, Akanda and Pongara, better promoting the Museum of Arts and Traditions, and creating a village dedicated to local handicrafts. To back this scheme, a holiday resort is being planned in Santa Clara, around 15 km from the capital, which will include two hotels and two museums for tropical forests and arts. “Being the main entry point to Gabon, developing more tourism offerings in Libreville has been made a priority under the government’s five-year plan. This would provide business visitors with an excuse to extend their stay, and to lure their friends and family to join them,” Vincent Magloire Nkapseu Mihindou, a consultant at the National Employment Office, told OBG.

NEW ARRIVALS: New hotel brands have recently arrived in Libreville, and more are scheduled in the next few years. In early 2012 Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group took over the management of Okoume Palace Hotel. From eight hotels in five countries in 2007, Rezidor today has a total of 49 operational and planned hotels in 21 countries across Africa.

New Radisson Blu openings in 2012 include hotels in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), Lusaka (Zambia) and Maputo (Mozambique). A Park Inn by Radisson is also set to open its doors in Tete, Mozambique.

Okoume Palace Hotel, which currently has 327 rooms, is undergoing extensive renovation under Rezidor. The first stage is expected to see 195 rooms, an adjacent building and all the restaurants refurbished. Works are expected to last one year and, on completion, Okoume Palace will become a Radisson Blu Hotel, while the former residence will open with 140 rooms as a Park Inn by Radisson.

The second stage of the renovation will take six months and will include 135 rooms and all the conference and meeting facilities. By March 2014 the transformation will be complete, producing one of the largest hospitality complexes in the area, offering 470 rooms, four restaurants, a bar with a large outdoor space, 1300 sq metres of conference and meeting facilities, and a new pool area. Total works are expected to amount to €32m.

Another significant arrival in 2012 is Marriott International. The chain is investing in two hotels in Libreville, with a 250-room Marriott Hotels & Resorts-branded hotel and a 40-unit Marriott Executive Apartments designed for extended-stay travellers. The Marriott Hotel will offer 225 rooms, 25 suites and 3346 sq metres of meeting space. Marriott Executive Apartments will offer 20 one-bedroom, 10 two-bedroom and 10 three-bedroom apartments. Both establishments are expected to be operational by 2015, located on the capital’s main seafront thoroughfare, Boulevard du Bord de Mer.

Nor is it only established brands that are moving in. Recent start-up Onomo, with headquarters in Paris and Dakar, opened its first hotel in Libreville in January 2012 in preparation for the CAN, offering mid-range accommodation and 118 rooms. The chain aims to increase its number of hotels in Africa to 30 over the next five years, which would catapult it into the top ranks of pipeline capacity on the continent.

HIGH-END LODGES: Crucially, while the vast majority of these new internationally branded hotels are expected to cater mostly to visitors on business in Libreville, other investors are looking at developing high-end lodges in Gabon’s rural hinterlands (see analysis). This is a must if the country is to build its leisure and niche segments. Aman Resorts, for instance, is building a luxury hotel-spa of 30 suites in Libreville overlooking Pongara National Park and a 30-villa hotel on the Phare de Ngombe site in the same park, just outside the capital.

To further improve access to national parks, the government is looking to develop rail and river transport. Plans for panoramic railcars running from Libreville to La Lopé National Park are currently under study, as well as the possibility of placing passenger boats to navigate the Ogooué River.

A CONTINUING RISE: With the government looking to transform Libreville into a major destination for business tourism in Central Africa and develop cultural tourism, the number of arrivals on the hotel market is likely to rise in the near future.

Indeed, the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) estimates emerging economies will continue to increase their international tourism market share in the coming years. A UNWTO report published in October 2011 estimates that by 2015 emerging economies will see more international arrivals than advanced economies do, and that by 2030 they will represent some 58% of the global tourism market. The UNWTO expects Africa to move from the 5% market share it held in 2010 to around 7% in 2030.