(ACT AFRIQUE ) - First diagnosed as pneumonia in Wuhan City, China, in December 2019, the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, was declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern and a pandemic on 30 January 2020 by the World Health Organization (WHO).
Within about five months, what began as a localized illness in China quickly spread to the rest of the world with substantial consequences. As of the writing of this article, the COVID-19 pandemic has infected over 3.8 million people and caused nearly 266,000 deaths across the world— a rate of about 53,000 deaths per month.
COVID-19 is quickly gaining grounds in Africa
Although Africa remains the least affected region of the world, the number of confirmed cases and deaths have sharply increased during the past few weeks. The continent currently has nearly 52,000 confirmed cases and about 2,000 deaths.
Evidently, the gravity of the pandemic has caused a shift in global priority to combat a common threat to social and economic development. Political and social leaders as well as the civil society are prioritizing resources to tackle the immediate needs resulting from the pandemic. At ACT Afrique, we’ve also been advising our institutional and business clients on the reorientation of their strategies in light of the pandemic.
The continent must position itself to be more resilient after the pandemic
Nevertheless, whilst addressing the urgency of the pandemic is cardinal, we must also be forward thinking, especially in Africa where the healthcare infrastructure gap is significant. Now, more than ever, Africa must not miss the opportunity to shape its future and build a more prosperous continent for its people.
At ACT Afrique, our teams have been reflecting on how the continent should position itself to be more resilient against external shocks that cause severe economic stress and social disruptions. This will ensure that the continent is prepared against future healthcare crises and other external shocks.
While we believe that Africa’s development hinges on key sectors such as energy, technology, manufacturing, and agriculture, it’s equally important to recognize the unique context of each of the 55 countries on the continent. Economic development is foremost the success of aligning a country’s strategic ambition to its resources and human capital.
Ecotourism could become a strategic economic sector for Gabon
In our inaugural report on Africa’s strategic positioning after the COVID-19 pandemic, we focused on the ecotourism sector of the Republic of Gabon. Gabon is known for being among the biggest crude oil producers in Africa, but for the past decade, the government has embarked on an economic diversification strategy, conscious of the finite nature of the commodity. In its strategic development plan, Plan Stratégique Gabon Emergent, among sectors such agriculture, fisheries, and technology, the government has placed tourism as a key development sector of the country.
Ecotourism is the fastest growing segment of the tourism industry
Although there is not an authoritative definition of ecotourism, experts agree on the following core elements inherent in the sector:
1. The focus is natural areas. People engage in ecotourism specifically to visit natural destinations with the goal of observing and interacting with the biota.
2. Conservation of the environment. As much as possible, ecotourism should not disrupt the natural state of the environment and tourists should be sensitized on the importance of the conservation of the environment.
3. Economic benefits for local communities. The revenues derived from ecotourism activities should benefit local communities who reside around the tourist attractions.
Ecotourism is mainly nature-based tourism with a significant wildlife tourism content and some adventure tourism
According to the Journal of Tourism and Gastronomy Studies, Ecotourism is the fastest growing sub-sector of the tourism sector, with global annual growth rate between 10-15%, far surpassing the global GDP growth rate of about 3 %. The importance of tourism and (hence ecotourism) to Gabon’s economy is therefore evident— it is potentially a significant source of revenues and sustainable economic growth for the country.
Ecotourism as a long-term diversification strategy for Gabon
Gabon is abundantly rich in natural resources. The country is among the top exporters of crude oil, manganese, and timber. In the oil and gas industry, Gabon has proved particularly valuable and has consistently attracted global investors. From a nascent commercial oil sector in the 1960s, the country quickly became one of the most important oil producers in Africa, reaching a peak production of 370,000 barrels per day by 1997.
Gabon’s economic identity is intricately linked to the oil and gas sector
To circumvent its decreased oil output, the government is further attracting investors’ appetite to its deep offshore oil reserves.
Another and more long-term strategy that the government has adopted is the diversification of the country’s economy. Oil being a finite resource, the Gabonese government has been pursuing ways to become less reliant on the commodity. This desire is clearly inscribed in its Vision 2025 where sectors such as agriculture, healthcare, and forestry are an increased priority.
Another immense natural resource of Gabon is its biodiversity. Gabon is located within the Congo Basin, the world’s second largest tropical rainforest after the Amazon. Data indicate that nearly 90% of the country is still forested with a relatively low deforestation rate. This makes Gabon the third most forested country in the world.
The tropical forests, mangroves, wetlands, and savannahs as well as the species that dwell in them represent a unique ecosystem that is exceptional. Numerous studies demonstrate that Gabon has the highest biodiversity of the central terrains in the Congo basin. The country has an estimated 10,000 species of plants of which 20% are endemic; over 700 bird species; nearly 200 mammal species; 100 amphibian species; and over 160 reptile species. Although a significant portion of Gabon’s forest elephants has been killed (more than 25,000 killed between 2004-2014), the country still has the largest surviving population in the world.
A spectacular view of the Koungou cataract in the Ivindo National Park
If Gabon invests in ecotourism as much as it has done in the oil sector, it could potentially achieve greater and more sustainable success in the long run. There are encouraging signs that the government is heading into the right direction. For nearly two decades now, the Gabonese government has been aggressive and relatively successful in its fight to protect its biodiversity. This has earned the country accolades and recognition on the global stage. In 2019 for example, Norway rewarded Gabon with 150 million USD over 10 years to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and degradation. It is the first country to obtain such funds in Africa via the Central African Rainforest Initiative (CAFI).
A successful ecotourism sector requires inclusive planning, execution, and evaluation
Subsequent to the Gabonese government’s development of its Vision 2025 strategy, it is now imperative for stakeholders to reevaluate the role that tourism, particularly ecotourism, plays in the economic development of the country. Given that ecotourism is an export industry (goods and services are exchanged), therefore subject to market forces, it is important for the government and other stakeholders to provide active and coordinated effort to make the industry competitive. The following are a few high-level recommendations that the Gabonese authorities and other stakeholders should consider as the country tries to position itself as a premier tourism destination.
Evaluate the achievements and competitiveness of the industry
As part of this evaluation process, a comparison could be made between the achievements in the sector against the stated objectives within the roadmap. This step involves quantitative and qualitative assessment on the ecotourism sector. In light of the purpose of the evaluation, the focus should be on the achievements related only to ecotourism in order to (i) limit the scope to fit the goal of the evaluation; (ii) reduce the resources allocated to the evaluation; and (iii) obtain specific results that can inform decision makers.
Conduct a needs assessment of the stakeholders
The central question that the needs assessment would answer is: what is the role of each stakeholder and what do they need in order to meet the tourism objectives stated in the strategic roadmap?
The needs assessment is a critical phase that helps to determine activities such as the development of action plans, elaboration of technical assistance, and resource allocation.
Involve the local communities
Local communities play a significant role in preserving the environment and developing the economic activities related to it. Authorities can involve local communities in the industry activities at two levels: during the decision-making (planning) process and via participation in income-generating activities (post planning).
Establish an ecotourism public-private partnership framework
Gabon is in the advanced stages of finalizing a tourism code which will be the legal framework for the sector. While this is an important step, it is important to ensure that the principles of a successful PPP partnership are observed, to create a mutually beneficial outcome for all parties. Although ecotourism presents a substantial long-term growth opportunity for Gabon, it is essential for the government to capture this growth and manage it to provide wealth for the Gabonese people. But, given that resources are limited, even for the wealthiest governments, this process must inevitably involve multiple stakeholders. One of those stakeholders is the private sector. It plays a predominant role in ensuring the economic viability of the tourism activities. The Gabonese government could invite private entities into the sector, especially for the more sophisticated and big-ticket investments.
Promote local tourism
The government’s position that ecotourism is a niche is understandable given that ecotourism constitutes a much lesser share of tourism in most countries. Nevertheless, it remains the fastest growing segment of the travel and tourism industry. Therefore, ecotourism should indeed be viewed as the catalyst to make tourism a pillar of growth in Gabon.
Develop the infrastructure around ecotourism
Tourism infrastructure development is at the core of any tourism strategic plan. The Tourism & Transport Forum (TTF) categorizes the infrastructure network of tourism into two core groups: demand drivers and supporting visitor infrastructure. The demand drivers essentially are the reason why tourists visit a country. They include iconic/historical sites, national parks, museums, and convention centers. Demand drivers are important because in addition to attracting tourists to the country, they increase tourist spending.
The supporting infrastructures are seldom the reason why tourists may decide to visit a country; however, they influence the tourism experience and, often, are a prerequisite to tourist arrivals. The supporting infrastructures consist of the road, railroad and airport networks that connect international and domestic travelers to the tourist attractions within a country (the demand drivers). Furthermore, a key component of this infrastructure group is hotel accommodations.
The government should focus on improving its environmental infrastructure. It appears this is the area where the government of Gabon has made the most improvements. In 2002, the country created a network of 13 national parks which are managed by the Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux (ANPN).
The missing piece though, is the valorization of the national parks and other environmental infrastructure. Given the size of the national parks (11% of Gabon land mass), it is important for the government to derive some revenues from their management. The objective here is to turn these treasures into tourist attractions.
Developing a qualified workforce
The quality of the workforce is a competitive factor of tourism in any country. Workers are at the forefront in receiving tourists who visit a country and the satisfaction of these tourists is largely based on how well they are received by the industry’s workers. In reality, the government’s ambition to build a tourism school of excellence should be part of a much broader vision to have a qualified workforce in the industry.
Key recommendations for the labor framework include:
• increase the participation of women and young people in the ecotourism workforce;
• provide training for micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs).
Tourism master plan
The cumulation of the prior recommendations is naturally a tourism master plan (TMP). Every country that has developed a prosperous tourism industry inevitably has a TPM.
Although the TPM is not an enforceable regulation, it strives to create synergies within the functions of key stakeholders in order to improve visitor experience and make the tourism sector more competitive. Furthermore, by developing a TMP, a country achieves results and cost savings by eliminating redundancy of roles and allocating resources to the most suitable stakeholder.
A country gains a competitive edge from forward-looking actions in times of crisis
In conclusion, the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the urgency for African leaders to further improve the resilience of their countries. In the case of Gabon, this reflection should inevitably focus on economic diversification. Oil, regardless of how well it is managed, remains a finite resource. Although the country has taken laudable measures in the past decade to diversify its economy, much remains to be done to attain this ambition. Among the other sectors that authorities are focusing on, ecotourism should also be a priority. It is strategic segment of the country’s economy and could be a leverage to develop business tourism as well.
Furthermore, due to the multimodal nature of ecotourism, an increased investment in the sector would create synergies in other sectors of the economy, firmly positioning the country on its ambition to become an emerging economy.
Jeff Megayo, Analyst at ACT Afrique