Gabon tour operator pulls plug on Africa's Eden after aviation row

Will this mean an end to president's eco-tourism ambitions, asks Daniel Howden

A A A

As an untouched West African paradise where hippos play in the Atlantic surf and buffaloes and elephants parade on the beach, little-visited Gabon had been marked out as a rising eco-tourism star. But foreign visitors may have to leave Africa's last Eden after the country's largest tour operator said it was abandoning its business there following a simmering row with authorities in the oil-rich nation.

Africa's Eden, the main operator in Gabon's showpiece Loango National Park, said that an ongoing dispute with the country's civil aviation authorities had forced it to pull out, closing the door on what it claims has been a €15m investment.

The acrimonious departure marks a sour end to initial efforts to rebrand the country as "Green Gabon". The former French colony has been trying to position itself as West Africa's answer to Costa Rica since taking the decision to allocate more than one tenth of its land to national parks in 2002.

Previously the sparsely populated equatorial country had been best known as a major oil producer, with President Omar Bongo – who ruled Gabon for 40 years until his death last year – connected with various alleged financial scandals involving French oil giant Elf. "Gabon without France is like a car with no driver. France without Gabon is like a car with no fuel," he once said.

The former French air force lieutenant was regularly criticised for flouting human rights and amassing a huge fortune in an impoverished nation. And the family's spectacular wealth was recently the subject of an embarrassing corruption probe by a French magistrate.

However, Mr Bongo attracted rare international praise eight years ago with his decision to gazette 11 per cent of the country for preservation in 13 national parks.

With some 70 per cent of forest cover and little in the way of infrastructure, the strategy depended on attracting comparatively small numbers of high-end visitors who could be flown to newly created lodges and camps inside the parks.

Evidence of progress in putting Gabon on the map came when Loango National Park was named in 2008 by the British Guild of Travel Writers as "best new overseas destination".

The income from tourism was then supposed to pay for the parks in a "cash for conservation" trade.

Gabon's promotion as one of the world's last true Edens – endorsed by several major conservation groups – was meant to be the beginning of an eco-tourism boom for the oil-dependent economies of West Africa.

Since taking over from his father, the country's new President Ali Ben Bongo has restated his commitment to developing tourism and insisted he believes in "Green Gabon". Now the falling out with the country's biggest tourism investor, Rombout Swanborn – the Dutch founder and CEO of Africa's Eden –threatens to unravel this strategy.

Mr Swanborn, who spent part of his childhood in Gabon and made his fortune in the oil industry, said he would be taking legal action to claw back some of his firm's losses on what had been billed as one of the world's most exciting eco-ventures. A spokesperson for the firm, Jacqueline van den Broek, said that Africa's Eden had stopped marketing the destination and would be closing up its exclusive Loango Lodge – and laying off 125 employees – when the current batch of visitors leave before the end of August.

She said that government talk of creating an industry had been let down by a lack of real effort on the ground: "After 10 years we're the only high end, professional operation in Gabon and we're being pushed out."

The final straw for the venture came after a year-long dispute with Gabon's much-maligned civil aviation authority. All Gabonese airlines have been blacklisted by the EU since 2008 after failing to meet 93 per cent of safety and operational requirements and the tour operator has its own in-house airline, SCD. But the authorities have refused to renew the operating licences. "We've been pushed to this stage quite a number of times but our patience has run out," said van den Broek.

Sebastiaan Verhage, who works in Gabon with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) said the pull-out would be a blow for eco-tourism in the country but not necessarily a fatal one.

"Tourism is very important for Gabon and Africa's Eden are very important for tourism," he said by telephone from the capital, Libreville.

"They are the ones who got film stars and rich people to come here and made Gabon a bit more famous." But another five smaller operators are still in business, he added, and the southern sector of Loango park was still accessible even if the spectacular coastal area to the north was harder now to reach.

"This place is not going to become Costa Rica in the next few years. There are no roads, no hotels, no infrastructure for that," he said. "A real tourism boom could take 20 years or more."

Green Gabon?

* Former President Omar Bongo designated a staggering 11 per cent of Gabon's land mass a National Park – only Costa Rica has a higher proportion of the country given over to conservation.



* Established in September 2002, Loango is the jewel in the crown of the 13 parks. Situated between the Nkomi and Ndogo lagoons, forests, savannahs, wetlands and ocean all come together within its 380,000 acres. With more than 60 miles of uninhabited shoreline, it is widely regarded as one of Africa's last great coastal wildernesses.



* According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, up to 60,000 forest elephants inhabit the vast forests of Gabon. In Loango they can be spotted wandering the white sand beaches during the rainy season, which lasts from October to April.



* Gabon's beaches are home to the world's largest population of leatherback turtles, with a recent study estimating there are 47,000 females alone.



* After South Africa, the world's biggest concentration and variety (at least 14 at the last count) of whales and dolphins can be found off the Loango coast. Humpback whales head to Gabonese waters during their winter breeding season from June to September.



* Other species to spot include red river hogs, slender-snouted crocodiles, western lowland gorillas, manatees and a huge array of birds.



* Loango is also home to the legendary "surfing hippos". These were memorably captured on film frolicking in the warm equatorial waters of the Atlantic Ocean by National Geographic photographer Michael Nichols.

"The hippos feed all night and then came back surfing up the coast to sleep in the lagoon all day so I had to be there very early, ready to take pictures as they arrived," he explained. "That meant setting up camp at least 45 minutes away so as not to disturb them. I couldn't even use a flashlight because they might have seen it."

Nichols spent five months camping in the park with his family, as he documented the wildlife, much of which is unaccustomed to seeing humans because there are very few dwellings within the park. "It was a bit like the Beverly Hillbillies going to live on the beach in Africa," he said.

Alex Kiprotich

Life and Style
tech

Sales of the tablet are set to fall again say analysts

News
A Brazilian wandering spider
news

World's most lethal spider found under a bunch of bananas

News
people
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in the win over QPR
footballInternet reacts to miss shocker for Liverpool striker
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Voices
Sol Campbell near his home in Chelsea
voices
News
i100
News
Kimi the fox cub
newsBurberry under fire from animal rights group - and their star, Kimi
Sport
Fans of Palmeiras looks dejected during the match between Palmeiras and Santos
footballPalmeiras fan killed trying to 'ambush' bus full of opposition supporters
Arts and Entertainment
filmsIt's nearly a wrap on Star Wars: Episode 7, producer reveals
Life and Style
fashion
News
i100
News
<p>Jonathan Ross</p>
<p>Jonathan Ross (or Wossy, as he’s affectionately known) has been on television and radio for an extraordinarily long time, working on a seat in the pantheon of British presenters. Hosting Friday Night with Jonathan Ross for nine years, Ross has been in everything from the video game Fable to Phineas and Ferb. So it’s probably not so surprising that Ross studied at Southampton College of Art (since rebranded Southampton Solent), a university known nowadays for its media production courses.</p>
<p>However, after leaving Solent, Ross studied History at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, now part of the UCL, a move that was somewhat out of keeping with the rest of his career. Ross was made a fellow of the school in 2006 in recognition of his services to broadcasting.</p>
TV

Rumours that the star wants to move on to pastures new

News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey indulge in some racing at a Point to Point
tvNew pictures promise a day at the races and a loved-up Lady Rose
News
people

Comedian says he 'never laughed as hard as I have writing with Rik'

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Lead Teacher of Thinking School Drive Team and Year 3 Form teacher

Competitive: Notting Hill Prep School: Spring Term 2015 Innovative, ambitious ...

Operations Data Analyst - London - up to £25,000

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Operations Data Analyst -...

Programmatic Business Development Manager

£35 - £40000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: As the Programmatic Business Develo...

Year 5 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education is currently recruitin...

Day In a Page

Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

Terry Venables column

Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

Michael Calvin's Inside Word

Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past