Gabon’s tourism – most of it sustainable tourism – will quite possibly vanish by the end of August. The sudden withdrawal of Africa’s Eden, the main creator of tourism to the country, spells disaster for many people’s dreams, the country’s name, and a section of the economy. The marketing director for Africa’s Eden, Jacqueline Van den Broek, answers questions about what went wrong.
A World Different How long have you been in Gabon?
Van den Broek Africa’s Eden grew from a pilot project named Operation Loango, initiated in 2001, with the aim to conserve the pristine nature of Gabon through small-scale tourism. Loango National Park was one of the 13 new parks created in 2002, and it did well thanks to thanks to the efforts of SCD (Société de Conservation et Développement) and its parent company, Africa’s Eden.
AWD What kind of money and infrastructure did you put in there”
Van den Broek Fifteen million Euros for aviation, tourism, education infrastructure (we built school in the village, educated eco guides), and three million Euros went directly to conservation projects.
AWD Why did you choose Gabon as a venture?
Van den Broek Rombout Swanborn, Africa’s Edens’ owner, grew up there, saw the beauty and fragility of the ecosystem, and wanted to protect it via an entrepreneurial and sustainable way.
AWD Can you say a little about the owner of Africa’s Eden?
Van den Broek Rombout Swanborn spent part of his childhood in the Gamba region of Gabon. When he returned to Gabon after many years, he realized that west central Africa is one of the few places on earth that has remained relatively untouched by humankind, and that it deserves to be conserved for current and future generations. Africa’s Eden’s approach aims to establish and sustain west central Africa as a unique global destination for tourism, in order to conserve and protect its natural and cultural heritage.
AWD What has gone wrong now in Gabon?
Van den Broek The move is a result of the failure of negotiations following a dispute between the Gabonese civil aviation authorities (ANAC) and Africa’s Eden’s sister company, SCD Aviation, which ran a regional airline charter company to transport tourists from the capital Libreville to the park. Even active support of key members of Gabonese government could not prevent the severe consequence of a malfunctioning civil aviation authority that failed to create the conditions necessary for regular and safe aviation transportation: SCD Aviation was consistently refused the renewal of its Air Operator’s Certificate (AOC), even though all requirements were met.
Another consequence of this problematic situation is the fact that the European Union blacklisted all Gabonese airlines in 2008 when a large number of deficiencies were reported with regards to the capability of ANAC “to perform their air safety oversight responsibilities. More than 93 percent of the ICAO standards were not implemented.” This was the lowest percentage of all audited countries, and makes ANAC in Gabon one of the poorest performing civil aviation authorities in the world.
AWD You have the support of some of the government, though?
Van den Broek Correct. But ANAC is a fairly independent operating agency which apparently is hard to control from government side. This remains, however, also one of our own questions.
AWD Gabon got a lot of publicity in America and elsewhere the last few years as a travel destination. Do you think that was largely (if not solely) due to Africa’s Eden?
Van den Broek Africa’s Eden has always actively sought publicity and welcomed journalist and film crews from all over the world. Publications in National Geographic and documentaries on BBC and Animal Planet contributed to create awareness. Apart from that we went to all the large travel trade shows to promote Gabon.
AWD Do you think this is going to change things for the country?
Van den Broek Yes, they will lose their spot on the tourism map, I’m afraid. Without a decent tourism infrastructure in the national parks, tourism development as a serious economic sector will not happen.
AWD Is this a typical case of African corruption or how do you see it?
Van den Broek I am not the person to make these kind of qualifications, we can only see the result of this conflict by no longer having international tourists visiting Gabon. Other countries like Malawi, Cameroon, Sao Tome and Principe won’t stand still. In other words, if you don’t develop other countries will.
AWD Africa’s Eden is strongly in favor of sustainable tourism, isn’t it? Was this having a positive effect in Gabon?
Vandenbroek Very much so. One only has to consider the conservation projects conducted. Apart from that we created many jobs and education and provided a stable economic base for people in Gabon.
AWD How many people came to Gabon as a result of Africa’s Eden having camps and lodges there?
Vandenbroek Africa’s Eden realized 8000 bed nights a year
AWD What is your next move?
Vandenbroek As long as there is no reaction or action from ANAC or government, the lodge will remain closed.