By Christin Roby*
BRAZZAVILLE, Republic of Congo — Travelers landing at Maya-Maya airport in the Republic of Congo are greeted by the sort of sights one might find in a European city, with plexiglass walkways connecting the boarding wings and the main hall. A large sign pointing towards Brazzaville welcomes you at the exit. Outside, the city buzzes with the sounds of traffic and pedestrian conversation, day and night. Just a drive away sits the second largest rainforest in the world.
Rich in natural and cultural landmarks like these, Congo-Brazzaville is pinning hopes to diversify its oil-dependent economy on tourism. Commodities currently make up about 60 percent of the country’s economic output, so the government is courting foreign investments, pitching its appeal to international visitors and starting the hard work of building the tourism sector domestically.
The government’s strategic plan estimates it will need $31 million to overhaul the sector over the next five years and raise tourism’s contribution to the gross domestic product from its current 3 to 10 percent by 2021, according to the country’s tourism minister. The fund hopes to attract domestic and international investment to improve rural infrastructure, host multisectoral training programs and build renewable energy at tourist sites.
If successful, Congo-Brazzaville could become a model of how tourism can help foster sustainable development. Tourism advocates have long argued that, done right, the sector can create jobs and spur economic growth, while simultaneously promoting conservation and local cultures.
However, the challenges remain plenty. Tourism is an aggregation of services that need to operate seamlessly to create a memorable experience for visitors. Currently, limited air connectivity, few tourism operators, untrained human resources and a strict visa regime limit progress. The government hopes that a blend of renewed political will, private investment and community engagement will prevail.
Initial indications are promising. Earlier this month, the Congolese Ministry of Tourism and Leisure partnered with the United Nations World Tourism Organization and the United Nations Development Programme to host the country’s first-ever national tourism forum. Guests from as far as China, Switzerland and Turkey, as well as several African ministries of tourism, private tour companies, international investors and the World Bank participated in the two-day event.
“For a long time, Congo remained pretty much unknown in the tourism industry,” Rémy Poliwa, a France-based international tourism and hotel development consultant, told Devex on the sidelines of the Brazzaville meetings.
Now, perhaps that will change.
Tourists who visit Congo-Brazzaville are richly rewarded for venturing into this little-known destination. This country of 5 million is home to the second largest river in the world, the Congo, and the world’s second largest rainforest, Ozdala-Kokoua National Park. The country’s remote northwest region is also said to house 80 percent of the world’s wild chimpanzee populations, more than 515 birds species, along with thousands of forest elephant, forest buffalo, spotted hyenas, and lowland gorillas. More than 10 percent of these forests are also designated as protected areas as a means of preserving the natural habitat of its inhabitants.
Tourism can also be good for local residents, experts have long argued. Sustainable tourism has the potential to drive economic growth and development in Africa, while creating jobs and promoting the preservation of local cultures and societies. In recognition of that, the United Nations declared 2017 the Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development.
In 2016, less than 5 percent of the 1.2 billion travelers who crossed international borders visited Africa, according to the World Tourism Market Barometer published earlier this month by UNWTO. The continent takes a similarly small slice of the worldwide economic benefits. Travel and tourism generates $3.2 billion dollars daily and creates 1 in 10 jobs worldwide, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council’s 2017 Travel & Tourism Economic Impact report.
Until recently, countries in Central Africa such as Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and the Republic of Congo, could rely on oil to finance their budgets. But falling commodity prices have renewed interest in tourism and other sectors. Tourism is “the oil that never runs out,” UNWTO Secretary-General Taleb Rifai told Congo’s President Denis Sassou Nguesso when they met in Brazzaville on July 17.
Minister of Tourism and Recreation Arlette Soudan-Nonault believes the country can become a top ecotourism destination in Africa. It already has lodging, restaurants, road access to each region of the country, and general hospital in each area, as well as relative security.
The many varieties of tourism
Leaders in Brazzaville are thinking beyond just ecotourism. The Minister of Health and Population Jacqueline Lydia Mikolo said she is working to lay the groundwork for medical tourism.
“The principal objective is to improve the health system for the people of Congo, but also [push] this new tourist medical destination,” Mikolo told the tourism forum.
Other African nations such as Tunisia, Egypt and South Africa have done this successfully so far. They are most well regarded for medical tourism in Africa, known for conducting invasive procedures such as plastic surgery, joint replacements, and dental treatments by skilled professionals for a fraction of the price paid in Western countries.
Benoit Kountchou of Benoit Tourisme Voyage, a Congolese tourism operator based in France, urged the government to consider even more options: Hosting large sporting events, international forums and conferences.
Toward a strategy
Tourism encompasses everything from travel booking, transportation, and accommodation to food and beverage and handicrafts. In Africa, the links between these sectors tend to be weak, according to the 2017 Economic Development in Africa Report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.
A key part of the strategy will be to improve that interconnectedness. Two-thirds of international travelers in sub-Saharan Africa originate from Africa, illustrating the need to streamline visa requirements, expand air connectivity, and make currency conversions among African currencies more fluid, according to an UNCTAD report.
Congo-Brazzaville’s tourism today is dominated by foreign-owned airlines, tour operators, travel agencies and hotel chains, which could complicate efforts to link them to local firms, the report said. As part of the national strategy, the tourism ministry plans to strengthen national capacities by regulating the sector and developing a national communications strategy to support local companies.
Other sorts of infrastructure will also need improvements. The report noted that affordable and extensive internet connectivity, as well as financial infrastructure, are key to competitiveness.
Branding is another perpetual challenge. Rifai explained how a tendency to generalize the continent can limit interest in African tourism. The Republic of Congo, for example, is often confused with is better-known and volatile neighbor, the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Rifai said adequate communication can help change perceptions. The minister of tourism said she plans to rebrand the hashtag #DestinationCongoBrazzaville as part of the ministry’s digital strategy. To increase visibility, the ministry has also created two websites dedicated to tourism.
However, the minister is also pushing the local population to engage. “Many times we believe that it’s up to the minister to create interest for the country, but this is not the case,” Soudan-Nonault explained. “Instead we need you [the Congolese] to develop your own businesses as tour operators and others to work in conjunction with us.”
Some of the first changes toward a sustainable tourism sector may need to come at home. With skills development programs included in the national strategy, the hope is to create more middle-income jobs in urban and rural areas. The national tourism plan includes natural habitat preservation, programs for environmental protection and land research and development.
If tourism is to create jobs, Soudan-Nonault acknowledged the need for better skills training. The ministry intends to implement a national multisector capacity building training module and conducting regular audits of how the efforts are proceeding. UNWTO pledged to adopt a local school and help develop a curriculum to professionalize the skills of those working in the sector.
The government hopes a recently-adopted Congo Basin Blue Fund will also help. The 12-country wide fund is meant to finance regional conservation projects via loans, grants, or subsidies for ecotourism, irrigation and drainage in savannah areas, renewable energy and improved river transport. Launched at the latest climate negotiations in Marrakech in March, the fund will seek support from the Green Climate Fund, as well as the private sector through public-private partnerships.
Congo-Brazzaville already has at least one unique ecotourism structure in operation. Ozdala National Park wildlife is managed by African Parks, a NGO that works in partnership with governments to take direct responsibility for the long-term management and rehabilitation of wildlife and protected areas across the continent. Ozdala is protected by African Parks’ “eco-guards” who camp out for two weeks at a time in the forest to prevent poaching.
“We are showing to the world and to the Congolese people that we have a strong touristic potential but only if its regulated properly,” Soudan-Nonault said.