“For a long time we have not heard the chimps singing,” welcomed Stéphane in the middle of this joyful noise. While the cries of monkeys tear the calm of the forest park of Pongara, elephants and hippos remain out of sight. “It is too hot for their liking,” continued the young tourist guide, employee of the resort, Turtle Bay, one of the few hotels in this protected area.
“We are not at the zoo; nature knows how to see when she wants,” smiles Fortuné Ngossangah, assistant curator of Pongara National Park, one of the thirteen in Gabon. Nestled on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, off Libreville, it contrasts sharply with the pollution and the noise of the capital. In this quiet atmosphere rocked by the waves, leatherback turtles return annually to bury their eggs in the sand, near the sprawled buffalo in the savannah.
This is a paradise that Gabon is trying somehow to expose to nature lovers by focusing on ecotourism. Promoted to the highest state summit following the creation of national parks, the sector is sluggish. Only a handful of institutions that meet environmental standards manage to attract foreign tourists and private operators. “We are convinced of the potential, but the start is complicated,” admitted Lee White, Executive Secretary of the National Agency of National Parks (ANPN).
“Gabon has never been a tourist country; the cost of living is high, and operators, often English-speaking, are more used to building lodges in the bush than in the rainforest. We are still in discussion with some large groups such as Aman Resorts or the South African company Sustainable Forestry Management Africa [SFM Africa], even if things do not advance as rapidly as we had hoped,” said the British naturalized Gabonese, a fervent promoter of ecotourism.
Educating tourists is one area that the Minister of Commerce, Handicrafts, and Tourism, Madeleine Berre, also hopes to raise. The former leader of the Gabonese bosses said that ecotourism remains one of the showcases of the emerging Gabon Strategic Plan. And that its economic goal—generating 25 billion CFA francs (approximately € 38 million) starting in 2025—is still relevant. “It’s a huge project, but we strive to develop it,” says Fortune Ngossangah.
Assistant Curator of Pongara Park, managed by the ANPN, cites as evidence the ecoguides that the national agency is training to accommodate tourists and mentors. If foreigners are expected, Librevillois storm the park every weekend. “Part of our job is to educate: to Pongara, there is for example no waste collection device. We ensure that their passage will not affect the ecosystem,” he said.
If the wealthy reside in Turtle Bay, others reserve rooms in private homes, a godsend from Fatou Bandzenda, who runs the hotel bar. “I rent cheap rooms to the Librevillois who come for a weekend. This is mostly middle-class customers.” This activity has also launched Félix Medigli, Togo couturier. “I rent rooms to the Gabonese, and also to the Europeans,” says the sexagenarian. Evidence that the sector is growing is that it plans to increase its capacity, which is currently six rooms. Although still in its infancy, tourism is already beginning to benefit the local population.