Creating a new global ecotourism destination in the rainforests of Gabon

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Creating a new global ecotourism destination in the rainforests of Gabon

Gabon
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

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A Vision for Gabon: Tourism, Parks and Sustainable Development in the 21st Century, has been a collective effort involving conservation NGOs, private sector investors and various Government departments to establish Gabon as the World’s premiere destination for African rainforest tourism and a model for 21st century parks. Starting with the creation in 2002 by President Omar Bongo Ondimba of a network of 13 National Parks covering almost 11% of Gabon, the project has been a 6-year effort to develop sustainable tourism from scratch. By developing an inspirational vision that has been validated by the President, focusing media attention on Gabon and launching several pilot tourism initiatives taking people into some of Gabon’s pristine natural spectacles and introducing them to the varied vivid cultures that go back at least 400,000 years, we hope to be putting Gabon on the right track towards the development of a unique tourism industry that is environmentally, economically and socially sustainable.

Your idea
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Street Address

BP 7847

City

Libreville

State/Province
Postal/Zip Code
Country
Year innovation began

2002

Geotourism Challenge Addressed by Entrant

Quality of tourism management and impact on the destination

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Indicate sector in which you principally work

Conservation/Preservation organization

Geographic location

Urban, Rural, Coast, Mountain, Rainforest.

Plot your innovation within the Mosaic of Solutions
Main barrier addressed

Lack of quality assurance

Main insight addressed

Incorporate sustainable practices

Innovation
What is the goal of your innovation?

Establish Gabon as the gateway to Africa’s rainforests with a unique, sustainable tourism experience highlighting pristine nature and ancient cultures

How does your approach support or embody geotourism?

Our approach aims to establish and sustain Gabon as a new unique global destination for African rainforest tourism. We aim to bring people from around the world into contact with Gabon’s unique pristine nature, where the wildlife of the equatorial rain forests spills out onto the Atlantic beaches, as well as with its 400,000 years of human history that has resulted in 40 ethnic groups and profound traditions. Gabon’s masks inspired artists such as Picasso and its music has arguably given birth to reggae and calypso, through the tragedy of the slave trade.
Our guiding principal is to develop an experience that will move people to understand and care about the cultures and ecosystems they visit, allowing people to discover and learn about little known biological spectacles, whilst cultivating exchange between tourists and local cultures that have been profoundly affected by the forests they have evolved in, creating a product that is uniquely Gabonese.

Describe your approach in detail. How is it innovative?

We have created a blueprint to guide the nation’s efforts to develop a tourism industry that sustainably exploits Gabon’s unique biological spectacles and cultural treasures. Our 10-year vision is founded on the creation of a network of 13 national parks in 2002 by President Omar Bongo Ondimba and aims to result in 100,000 mid- to high-end international visitors in ten years. The Vision has been officially adopted by the President and is currently being used as a foundation for the development of a more technical ecotourism strategy by the tourism authorities. We have outlined the seven sectors in which the government of Gabon and tourism sector in general need to focus: 1) establishing model parks; 2) policy reform; 3) developing a service sector; 4) improving infrastructure and integrating modern concepts of green design as well as traditional styles into lodge design; 5) capacity building; 6) global marketing 7) cultivation of investors and partnerships. In addition we have proposed tourism zoning plans for all 13 national parks and conceptual designs for over 50 lodges and tourism products. In addition we have begun to develop pilot initiatives aiming to demonstrate how all of these issues can be tackled.

What types of partnerships or professional development would be most beneficial in spreading your innovation?

We are quite literally trying to move a nation – key beneficial partnerships that would capitalize, put into action and develop the model we are proposing would be with responsible private-sector investors ready to adopt the approach we present; donors and NGOs able to accompany the government in key reforms and development of human and infrastructural capacity; scientists willing to apply their knowledge to help develop sustainable ecotourism products and local communities interested to develop cultural tourism initiatives.

Impact
In one sentence describe what kind of impact, change, or reform your approach is intended to achieve.

To establish Gabon as the World’s premiere destination for African rainforest tourism and as a model for 21st Century parks.

Describe the degree of success of your approach to date. Clearly define how you measure quantitative and qualitative impact in terms of how your approach contributes to the sustainability or enhancement of local culture, environment, heritage, or aesthetics? How does your approach minimize negative impacts? 200 words or less

President Omar Bongo of Gabon has validated our Vision for development of tourism and parks.
Media coverage, particularly by National Geographic (articles in 2003 on the creation of Gabon’s parks, in 2004 on Loango; films in 2004 on Loango, in 2007 on the development of the parks, and in 2008 on pilot tourism initiatives and on Gabon’s cultural treasures) has had a significant positive impact on Gabon’s international image and laid the foundations for Gabon being recognized as an emerging global destination by the international tourism industr (eg. www.ngeo.com/adventure/adventure-travel/africa/gabon.html). Our pioneering website on the culture and nature of Gabon (www.gabonart.com) has had 1 million minutes of visits in 2006-2007, further adding to the interest in Gabon.
Our pilot public-private tourism initiative in Loango in partnership with SCD (Société de Conservation de Developpement - www.Africas-eden.com), and WCS projects in Lopé to develop mandrill tracking safaris (to be featured in July on National Geographic Channel in the series ‘Trecks in the Wild’ – see also www.Gabonmagazine.com, Autumn 2007) and in Langoué, Ivindo National Park, have been extremely successful and are inspiring the nation to believe the ecotourism vision is possible.
The very existence of the Vision is an insurance against negative impacts.

How does your program promote traveler enthusiasm, satisfaction, and engagement with the locale?

Developing traveler enthusiasm and satisfaction is one of the guiding principals of our vision and our demonstration projects try to achieve this by ensuring that expert guides give visitors a uniquely insightful and informative experience. By training local guides and expert trackers and developing pilot community tourism initiatives (see www.gabonmagazine.com, issue 4) we bring people into contact with local peoples in the belief that cultural exchange is as important as introducing people to Gabon’s natural treasures.

In what ways are local residents actively involved in your innovation, including participation and community input? How has the community responded to or benefited from your approach?

Around 200 Gabonese nationals at all levels contributed to the vision. Local people are involved in all pilot tourism products we have developed. We have helped several communities create associations to enable them to collectively participate in and benefit from tourism development. Many Gabonese artists and musicians participate in our educational initiatives and we even had an art, music and photography exhibition for a month around World Environment Day at the parliament building.

Describe how your innovation helps travelers and local residents better understand the value of the area’s cultural and natural heritage, and educates them on local environmental issues. How do you motivate them to act responsibly in their future travel decisions?

Through our work we have helped to make Lopé Gabon’s first World Heritage Site. We have produced about 20 in-house films which are shown regularly on Gabonese television, as well as collaborating on international films with national Geographic, BBC and TF1. We are producing a series of guide books to the National Parks (to date we have covered 7 of the 13 parks) and we have environmental education programs in and around 8 of the parks. The Presidential tourism vision gives many guidelines as to how to develop sustainable tourism that minimizes impacts and this is becoming a text for training programs we are developing with government for guides.

Sustainability
Is your initiative financially and organizationally sustainable? If not, what is required to make it so? What is the potential demand for your innovation?

We are at a point where the initiative needs to be adopted by private sector and various government departments to become truly sustainable. Our role has been to catalyse the development of the national vision and to provide technical inspiration and practical examples. Multiple private-sector investors have now taken concepts from the vision and adopted them to their own needs, respecting the philosophy of sustainability and sound environmental management and as tourism develops we expect there to be more and more demand for help and advice.

How is your initiative currently financed? If available, provide information on your finances and organization that could help others. Please list: Annual budget, annual revenue generated, size of part-time, full-time and volunteer staff.

WCS Gabon Program employs 125 people mostly for park management. About 35 work in tourism development to a lesser or greater extent. In addition, over 50 government staff worked on the Vision.
Most of our budget for the Presidential Tourism Vision came from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, from Total Gabon, the Gabonese Government and WCS trustee Edith McBean. Over the last 6 years we have invested of the order of $1,850,000 in development of the Vision and pilot projects in Loango, Lopé and Ivindo.

What is your plan to expand your approach? Please indicate where/how you would like to grow or enhance your innovation, or have others do so.

Whilst we see some possibility of using our approach in Gabon to work elsewhere in the region – particularly Sao Tomé & Principé – but there is also demand from Cameroon and Republic of Congo – rather than expanding our approach we see ourselves moving into a phase of consolidation and application of all the development and start-up activities and capitalization on our communications successes. The key issues now are bringing in private sector investors and coordinating government investment in infrastructure and training.

What are the main barriers you encounter in managing, implementing, or replicating your innovation? What barriers keep your program from having greater impact?

We decided to invest in a “Vision” for tourism and parks because in 2002, when we started, few people were able to conceptualize the potential and the unique product that Gabon could become. So, by its very nature our strategy has been designed to overcome this lack of vision. There are many practical details to deal with – as documented in the first section of our document – lack of infrastructure, lack of trained personnel, poor image, no service industry / tourism sector, expense of travel, difficulty of obtaining visas . . . . but without a compulsive vision one can never hope to overcome all of these issues and kick-start a destination from zero.
We are still struggling to communicate the vision to all concerned; although obviously with its adoption in 2007 by President Bongo Ondimba the mandate has become much stronger, particularly in government circles. In fact, we are at a point where we have a vision and the most significant barriers are 1) lack of funding for our own activities and 2) hesitance on the part of a private sector that knows savanna, Anglophone Africa to invest in a forested francophone country (new ecosystem, different language and legal system).

The Story
What is the origin of your innovation? Tell your story.

Our story is a collective one. In that I have been the glue that stuck various initiatives together I (Lee White) am the figurehead of this application. In 2002, inspired by the incredible images taken by NGS photographer Michael “Nick” Nichols and stories told by Mike Fay of his “Megatransect” expedition across Central Africa, President Bongo Ondimba of Gabon adopted a plan submitted by Mike Fay and I to create 13 National Parks. He acted incisively and announced the park creation, that had cost his government an estimated $US30 million in compensation for cancelled logging permits, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in South Africa. His vision was to fulfill commitments made 10 years earlier in Rio, to preserve his country’s natural treasures for future generations and to develop a high-end ecotourism industry to provide sustainable livelihoods for tens of thousands of Gabonese citizens.

In 2003 we realized that if tourism was to develop in Gabon we needed both to put it on the international map and to develop a new model for sustainable rainforest tourism more of less from scratch. Our efforts to put Gabon into the international limelight were highly successful, helped by the global partnership between NGS and WCS, and in particular by Nick Nichols startling images of surfing hippos, elephants on the beach, leopards, gorillas, chimpanzees, magnificent landscapes and mysterious peoples. In 2005 Oprah Winfrey named Gabon as one of “5 places to visit in your lifetime”. In addition to magazine articles and television films we created an inspirational website (spearheaded by Jean-Louis Lesage) to promote Gabonese culture and nature (www.gabonart.com) and developed a magazine to promote investment in Gabon (www.gabonmagazine.com).

Our efforts to develop tourism were met with some skepticism and lots of institutional inertia. Rombout Swanborn, a pioneering Dutch investor in ‘Conservation Tourism’ developed Africa’s Eden – www.africas-eden.com – developing the infrastructure and logistics to provide high-end nature tourism experiences in remote parts of Gabon (and from 2006 in Sao Tomé and Principé as well). On a smaller scale WCS developed an ecolodge in Ivindo National Park to allow visitors to access Langoué Bai, where rainforest gorillas and elephants mingle in one of the most pristine spots on the planet, and pilot mandrill tracking and community tourism excursions in Lopé National Park. Problems encountered by Mr. Swanborn and the WCS staff were the inspiration for the development of the “Vision for Tourism, Parks and Sustainable Development in the 21st Century”. Here I teamed up with John Gwynne, Vice-President for Design and Graphics and Chief creative Officer at WCS, Eric Chesnel, a special advisor to Gabon’s President Omar Bongo Ondimba, and Mme. Pascaline Mferri Bongo Ondimba, Chief of Staff for President Bongo. Together with Andrew and Beth Coates from Cresolus Design, Markley Boyer, Kat Lemcke and Christian Tchemambela, we formed a core team that worked with almost 200 resource people to develop an inspirational vision of how to develop a new, fresh, sustainable, ecologically sound, culturally sensitive tourism industry, which was approved in 2007 by President Bongo.

Please provide a personal bio. Note this may be used in Changemakers' marketing material.

Dr. Lee White, a Senior Conservation Scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society took his first steps into Africa’s rain forests whilst growing up in Uganda. After high school he volunteered on the Tiwai Primate Project in Sierra Leone and then worked in southern Nigeria, before moving to Gabon in 1989 to undertake a PhD on the impacts of forestry on gorillas, chimpanzees and elephants. Alongside Mike Fay he was instrumental in Omar Bongo Ondimba’s decision to create Gabon’s National Parks. Dr. White has dual Gabonese and British citizenship and is bringing up his three children in Gabon’s rainforests.

Please write an overview of your project. This text will appear when people scroll over the icon for your entry on the Google map located on the competition homepage.

A Vision for Gabon: Tourism, Parks and Sustainable Development in the 21st Century, has been a collective effort involving conservation NGOs, private sector investors and various Government departments to establish Gabon as the World’s premiere destination for African rainforest tourism and a model for 21st century parks. Starting with the creation in 2002 by President Omar Bongo Ondimba of a network of 13 National Parks covering almost 11% of Gabon, the project has been a 6-year effort to develop sustainable tourism from scratch. By developing an inspirational vision that has been validated by the President, focusing media attention on Gabon and launching several pilot tourism initiatives taking people into some of Gabon’s pristine natural spectacles and introducing them to the varied vivid cultures that go back at least 400,000 years, we hope to be putting Gabon on the right track towards the development of a unique tourism industry that is environmentally, economically and socially sustainable.