The eco alternative: Promoting private investment in natural attractions

In recent years, government investment in the tourism sector has been primarily aimed at upgrading infrastructure and developing high-end tourism. Though visitors to Gabon remain primarily business-oriented, the industry shows considerable potential for growth, with notable opportunities for ecotourism. According to official figures, as much as 20% of international travel to Gabon is dedicated to visits focused on nature.

Encouraging the development of ecotourism as an economic alternative to exploiting the country’s natural resources is a key objective of the government’s Green Gabon plan, a pillar of the Emerging Gabon economic development strategy.

Protected Areas

As a destination, Gabon offers an impressive array of natural scenery and biodiversity. Home to the second-largest rainforest in the world as well as the largest populations of forest elephants, gorillas and nesting leatherback turtles, the country has the potential to become a global player in ecotourism. With the addition of marine parks along 20% of the country’s 885 km coastline announced in November 2014, protected areas, including the country’s 13 national parks, cover 21% of Gabon.

Current ecotourism projects focus largely on the country’s network of national parks. Plans to develop ecotourism in the parks began to materialise in 2008, following the creation of the National Agency of National Parks (Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux, ANPN) in 2007. Growth in the segment will depend on the country’s ability to increase access to natural attractions in rural areas.

While some national parks are accessible by road and even rail, dense forests covering much of the country limit travel. However, investment in the country’s transport network is expected to improve accessibility in coming years.

Public-Private Partnerships

In 2014 the government restructured public agencies responsible for tourism development, replacing Gabon Tour, formerly responsible for promoting tourism, with 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 coordinates development in tourism and aims to attract more investment to the sector, notably by increasing high-end ecotourism offerings. Public-private partnerships (PPP) are playing a key role in shaping the segment’s development. “We cannot develop the sector without PPPs. Working with private operators is a priority for the government and is part of the reason why Agatour was created,” Gabriel Awore Mayindo, the managing director of Agatour, told OBG.

In 2013 the ANPN formed a PPP through a conservation tourism concession agreement with Sustainable Forestry Management (SFM) Safari Gabon, a local subsidiary of the Mauritius-based conservation and development company SFM Africa. The agreement includes plans to develop a luxury ecotourism safari circuit, with lodges in Pongara and Loango national parks targeting 2000 visitors annually. An additional component of the partnership will see SFM Safari Gabon and ANPN establish an institute for the study of great apes in Loango, which will be managed by the Max Plank Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

Under Way

Several private sector initiatives in ecotourism have been serving visitors in Gabon for years. Lékédi Park, a private nature reserve located in the south-east of the country, is managed by the Société d’Exploitation du Parc de la Lékédi, a subsidiary of mining company Comilog. The park has focused on protecting wildlife since its inception in 1991. Government focus on promoting ecotourism is also expected to boost the sector’s contribution to GDP as plans for development, notably in national parks, get under way. Indeed, Gabon has potential to become a top tourist destination for high-end ecotourism.