There’s trash on Mount Everest in Nepal and Machu Picchu in Peru is crumbling under the weight of 2,000 visitors a day. The Costa de Sol in Spain is paved over with concrete, while Cambodia has a full-time job shielding its children from sex tourists. It’s easy to despair when thinking about the effect of mass tourism on the planet.
But believe it or not, travel can also be a force for good even in some of the world’s most remote beauty spots. Gabon in West Africa is setting an example in how to do it right with Africa’s Last Eden in Loango National Park.
In this case, tourism is small scale, low-impact and directly funds conservation. As Rombout Swanborn, director of Loango National Park, says: “We will never have 20 Jeeps around a waterhole shining lights into animals’ eyes.”
Until recently, the country was not on the tourist radar at all but in 2002, Gabon’s forward-thinking president set aside 11% of his country as national park. With the ethos that “ecotourism pays for conservation,” the government started a small pilot tourism project in partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society and a private investor. Loango National Park officially opened for tourists in 2007 and the park is also used as a base for scientific research.
Africa’s Last Eden recently won an award from the British Guild of Travel Writers so it won’t stay a secret for long. Guild member Sarah Monaghan, who nominated the project for the award, describes why it’s so special and how it benefits the local community.
“A mosaic of grassland, rivers, forest and mangroves, Loango offers a unique safari experience because the wildlife is so spectacularly varied – with whales, elephants, hippos, leopards, reptiles and primates galore,” Monaghan says. “Visitors are accommodated in the eco-friendly lodge and satellite tented camps and wildlife viewing is small-scale with pirogue trips, forest treks or savannah drives.”
She adds that 500 Gabonese live in the area and nearly 100 have gained employment in roles such as tourist guides. The local farmers sell produce to the lodge and their children study in a new school built by the park.
Gabon is a little tricky to get to but depending which tour you join, there are flights from Paris, Brussels, Zurich, Casablanca and Johannesburg. The tours aren’t cheap, but going on safari to Africa never is. If you’ve always dreamed about it, do it with a clear, green conscience. And where else would you see wild elephants and other large mammals on the beach?
Image via National Geographic