Gabon turns from oil to dream tourism

Sapa-AFP, Monday 31 July 2000, 10:17 SAST

LIBREVILLE—Authorities in Gabon, fearful of an oil-less future in 10 years' time, are planning to turn the small west African country into a foreign tourist's paradise—and solve its currency problems by the same ticket.

With its stunning beaches, equatorial forests, nature reserves and wealth of local crafts, Gabon is not short of tourist attractions. Until now however, it has not needed to exploit them.

Tourism has been neglected for obvious reasons. It hasn't really had a part in the country's growth, as (Gabon) relied on the revenues from the export of raw materials, like oil and wood, Tourism Minister Alfred Mabika told AFP.

Out of 120,000 people who visited Gabon last year, only one percent came as tourists, according to figures from the ministry of tourism. The rest were here on business or for international conferences, the ministry said.

It is hardly surprising then that until now tourism has only accounted for between one and three percent of the GDP (Gross Domestic Product), but that figure, the ministry says, is set to change.

It wants to build up tourism in the next five years to provide between nine and 10 percent of the GDP. To do that, luxury tourism and niche tourism—catering to those wanting bush, fishing and hunting expeditions or safari trips—are to be developed.

In an attempt to encourage investors, President Omar Bongo has recently passed a series of measures which will mean that businesses linked to tourism will not have to pay customs duties for 10 years and taxes for eight.

Exorbitant customs duties have played a large part up till now in keeping down imports vital to the development of the tourist industry.

A tourism visa—until now unheard of in Gabon—is also to be introduced.

The visa will cost nothing and will be delivered by embassies and accredited travel agents, according to the tourism ministry.

Meanwhile special eco-guides will be trained to show tourists round. A postgraduate certificate in tourism was launched last December at Libreville university.

But there are other pressing problems the authorities are going to have to tackle if tourists are to be lured here—poor infrastructure, low private investment and prohibitive airfares.

Currently the cheapest fare to Gabon from Europe is around 700,000 CFA zone francs (997 dollars, 1,069 euros)—more than double the fare to popular African tourist destinations Kenya or South Africa.

Those who make the trip here have few hotels to choose from—only 100 in the whole of the country, destined almost exclusively for a business clientele. Meanwhile there are around 10 travel agencies.

So far only 750 people are employed by the tourist industry in Gabon -around 1,000 times less than in South Africa, according to the tourism minister.

Worse still, locals do not know how to properly welcome tourists, one hotel manager in Libreville told AFP. Visitors have even been refused permission to leave the airport despite being in possession of a valid visa.