- In a drive to market Gabon's "unspoilt" forests and coastline to Western tourists, the government shies no efforts. Only weeks before the elections, where President Omar Bongo plans for yet another non-transparent re-election, a new tourism brochure emphasises that "Gabon is a stable country."
Gabon has invested much into its environment, setting aside enormous areas for national parks. The idea always has been to spare the very large parts of the country that are still underdeveloped for future ecotourism - a drive observers agree could become a good revenue source in the future.
So far, infrastructure has been mostly missing to attract tourists on a larger scale, but the first resorts are getting ready and some private companies have started operating in the country's 13 new national parks. Thus, the time for marketing on Western markets is ripe.
This week, Gabonese tourism authorities sent out their first press release through a British consultancy group and a US newswire, hoping to get positive news coverage in the many travel journals published in Europe and North America. The release demonstrates how Gabon wishes to be perceived by potential travellers in these markets.
Gabon is presented as "Africa's last Eden", the country where "the forests, wildlife and fisheries are still in a relatively good state and a network of 13 new national parks now protects many of the country's wilder areas. Nowhere else in western Africa is the coastal environment as unspoilt as it is in Gabon," according to the release.
Potential tourists are presented to the country's great conservation efforts. "Tourism pays for conservation" is the concept presented to make visitors feel they are part of this effort. The release takes the virtual traveller through several Gabonese national parks by "boat, 4WD or on foot." Lowland gorillas and chimpanzees are the obvious highlights.
The release however also takes into account that Gabon is a rather unknown country in Western tourism markets, and has the Western traveller's scepticism to potentially unstable African countries in mind. Already in the introduction, it therefore comforts the reader by informing that Gabon has a "high standard of living maintained by an active petroleum industry."
Political information finds no ample place in the release. It is merely observed that "Gabon is a stable country" in the first line. This can of course not be argued against, given that President Bongo has ruled in Gabon with absolute powers since 1967.
President Bongo indeed plans to get re-elected for yet another seven-year term on 27 November and no one expects that the electoral system will give room for another candidate to win against the incumbent. The 69-year-old President recently was angered by opposition complaints against a alleged government scheme to manipulate the electoral register. A crackdown on the opposition was the solution to this problem.
The President has announced the beginning of the electoral campaign to be on 14 November, when he starts touring the southern province of Nyanga using state limousines, helicopters and aircrafts. There are four other candidates - some of them close to the ruling party - to "challenge" Mr Bongo.
Even before the electoral campaign has officially been inaugurated, political turbulence is mounting. One of the main opposition parties, the Gabonese People's Assembly (RPG), has withdrawn from the National Electoral Commission (CNE) alleging that fraud is being prepared. Opposition candidate Zacharie Myboto today was prevented from holding a meeting in Libreville.
With the President's unfair election methods being clearer demonstrated each day, the opposition is considering counteractions. Political violence has indeed occurred in connection with elections before, in particular in the 2003 presidential poll. November 2005 thus may not be the luckiest month to book a flight to Gabon, or to start campaigning for the country's tourism potential.
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