Gabon: Africa's gem but lacking tourism

by Fran
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Gabon's paradise rainforest - but where are the tourists?
Gabon's paradise rainforest - but where are the tourists?
  • Gabon is widely described as Africa's nature gem. Over 85% of the country is natural rainforest.
  • The country has a long history of troubled politics and corruption which has severely hampered public infrastructure development.
  • However, there are renewed plans to improve the country's public infrastructure and accessibility, in line with the country's ecotourism goals.
  • Gabon's ecotourism potential is huge, but the country needs to step up its services and facilities before the international eco-minded community can truly appreciate Gabon's natural resources.

On August 17, 2013, Gabon celebrated its 53rd year of independence.  For the locals, this meant celebrations.  As a potential visitor to Gabon, are you wondering what recent developments happened in Gabon, is Gabon still known for its poor infrastructure and inaccessible roads?  Well, there is good news and some less positive news:

Central Africa is a rather volatile region in Africa, but Gabon has always been one of the slightly more stable regions in Central Africa.  Combined with its incredible natural resources, including the rainforests, its famous gorilla and wildlife population and isolated coastline, Gabon is a precious piece of Africa.  But for many years, Gabon was somewhat unwelcoming towards tourists, albeit not intentionally.  The country’s economy and political matters prevented true development and infrastructure improvement.  For decades, detailed infrastructure plans remained just that – plans without action.  The country’s poor infrastructure and transport network kept the tourists away and prevented significant economic growth and development.

Notably, there are a few things that are changing with some recent developments.  During 2012, Gabon hosted the continent’s most popular African Cup of Nations football event.  Although there was some unhappiness about the massive financial support for sport stadium facilities which meant less money available for roads and infrastructure, the event in itself was testimony of some infrastructure improvement in the country’s main regions including Libreville and Franceville.  Although of limited interest to the international world, the African Cup of Nations acted as a catalyst for improvement and upgrading – and this predicts a better welcome for tourists.  Another positive happening is the tourism accommodation rating system.  In 2011, the Ministry of Tourism implemented a hotel and restaurant rating system.  The intention was to provide visitors to the football event with some guidance on what level of service and facilities to expect when bookings for accommodation and other activities are made.  This not only served the football event, it remains available to tourists.  The star rating system judges quality, service and conditions of a facility and is subject to review from time to time.  And on a higher level, Gabon is now receiving help from US experts in finally moving forward with the implementation of their National Infrastructure Plan.  The budgets have been decided and timeframes have been developed.  The aim is to improve at least some aspects of the country’s roads, rail, air, maritime and river transport by 2016. 

On the eco-tourism front, Gabon set off with major goals.  Former President Ondimba proclaimed 13 national parks in 2002.  With the proclaiming these national parks, 10% of Gabon’s fragile environment is now under protection.  But as far as authentic eco-tourism goes, it is believed that Gabon was just too hasty.  A renowned Gabonese eco-centered tourist facility, Loango Lodge, closed down in 2010 – because Gabon’s ideals of an eco-tourism driven economy is not yet supported by the basics: accessibility, facilities and infrastructure.  Luckily, the lodge has since reopened and is again trying to contribute to the country’s ecotourism goals. 

Although Gabon’s oil-driven economy looked good on paper, the benefits of a prosperous economy did not reach the public and public infrastructure received little attention.  However, Gabon’s government now widely recognizes the deranged situation.  Both the government and public of Gabon are gearing themselves for a new era: one not dependent on oil, but rather Gabon’s green features.  The past decade’s plans for ecotourism in Gabon did not realize.  Former president Ondimba had great ideals for Gabon as a future world ecotourism destination, but in the ten years since announcing these plans, progress has been slow.  Recently, the country’s leaders reaffirmed their intention to develop the country as an eco-tourism destination, recognizing this as key to sustainability and economic development.    

Stepping up to tourism means improved infrastructure and local community training.  With tourism still in its infancy, Gabon has a major gap to fill and international confidence to gain.  The country’s potential as a world ecotourism destination is undisputed, but investment in the tourism industry has been too little to make headlines.  Despite limited development, Gabon still manages to attract a slowly increasing number of tourists per year.  And if the current government’s plans are put into practice, one can expect the slow trickle of tourist numbers to increase at a greater pace.

Sources and credits

Photo credits: some rights reserved by carlosoliveirareis via flickr [Creative Commons]

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