By Lata Liechtenstein, LGT VP Associate Fellow for LGT Venture Philanthropy Africa
Gabon, a country that is covered in rainforest (88%), is often nicknamed the Garden of Eden. With 22mio hectares of forest, 1mio hectares of arable land and over 800km of coastline it represents a unique location and opportunity in the Congo Basin which is called the “second lung of the earth”. Gabon’s small population (just over 2 million), abundant natural resources, and foreign private investment have helped make Gabon one of the more prosperous African countries, with a longstanding stable political climate. For over 30 years, Gabon has been a high forest low deforestation (HFLD) country and shown active political will to create a green country, protect its environment and promote biodiversity. Consistent leadership on conservation, has led to the adoption of laws, the creation of Protected Areas and National Parks, and Forestry Agencies: National Parks and Protected Areas currently cover 21% of the land and 27% of the oceans, and the President, Ali Bongo Ondimba, has committed that this will rise to 30 percent of both by 2030.
However, it is the oil industry that is currently one of the largest drivers of GDP (40%) in the country and accounts for more than 85% of Gabon’s export revenues. Since the oil prices have greatly decreased (notwithstanding the recent spike) Gabon has adopted a strategy for the promotion of non-oil sectors and economic diversification. This is also motivated by the fact that currently Gabon can offer only around 400.000 future jobs while roughly 800.000 of children/youth will soon be entering the job market. In view of this, economic diversification focuses on the promotion and establishment of sustainable forestry (timber transformation) and also aims to transform Gabon into a prime eco-tourism destination.
With regard to the first, Gabon has thus established a Special Economic Zone (GSEZ) in 2010 that focuses on developing infrastructure, enhance industrial competitiveness and build a business-friendly ecosystem in Gabon: within that zone, one can find commercial, industrial and a multi-sectorial park zone (access to woods, metallurgy, pharma production, building construction etc.). The GSEZ has now become the biggest log park in Africa while also becoming the first carbon-neutral certified industrial zone in Africa.
With regard to the second point mentioned above, Gabon as an eco-tourism hotspot, there is great potential. Gabon’s 13 National Parks offer some of equatorial Africa’s most remarkable biodiversity: landscapes span from wild coasts and beaches to dense tropical jungles. It is also amazing to see beach-combing elephants and the famous surfing hippos (although it is quite rare) against a backdrop of dense tropical rain forest and breaching humpback whales. It comes as no surprise that naturalist Mike Fay referred to Loango, one of the national parks, as ‘Africa’s Last Eden’.
Gabon’s ecosystem is one of a kind and incredibly well preserved. Its diverse wildlife consists of the continent’s largest population of forest elephants, over 700 bird species, over 100 reptile species and over 170 mammal species, including the western gorilla (over 30,000), chimpanzee, mandrill, and hippopotamus, plus thousands of plant species. The country’s cultural richness is equally vast: ancient archaeological finds and a rich history of cultural migrations. Gabon now hosts some 40 ethnic groups with diverse languages and traditions.
It is therefore understandable that the development of eco-tourism is at the heart of the government’s strategy to promote conservation. Furthermore, in its strategic development plan, Plan Stratégique Gabon Emergent, among sectors such as agriculture, fisheries, and technology, the government has placed tourism as a critical development sector of the country. This would also allow the local communities living in and around the national parks to further participate in conservation efforts.
In my personal experience, it is true that there is a lot of potential for tourism development in the national parks. Often it is quite difficult, long, and tiring (as well as extremely expensive) to get around the country and even then, there might not be any infrastructure to welcome potential tourists.
Once you get to your destination however, you mostly forget about the difficult journey. Tracking the gorillas and the elephants on the beach or walking through the amazing rainforest truly is a unique and fantastic experience that one doesn’t forget easily. It therefore comes as a surprise that Gabon is not more well-known in “tourism circles”.
Additionally, people in Gabon are very proud of their biodiversity assets. The tourism guides’ enthusiasm for nature and conservation is only dampened by the fact that the local population is often either disinterested or, which is even more likely, apprehensive of eco-tourism efforts, because they do not see the benefits of living next to a national park with tourism opportunities. At the same time, it is worthwhile noting that in general rural Gabon is very scarcely populated and often villages in or around national parks hardly consist of more than a couple of households.
In general I would therefore say that Gabon although the circumstances of launching and marketing eco-tourism in Gabon are more than difficult (eco-tourism has been on the government’s agenda for over 15 years, and not many people have actually heard of Gabon – especially connected to tourism), the country’s treasures make it more than worthwhile to discover the country.