Despite the COVID-19 pandemic’s travel impacts, West Africa’s objectives remain valid
In June 2019, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) adopted the ECOTOUR Regional Tourism Policy and 2019-2029 Action Plan. It includes an overall assessment of the tourism situation, strategic priorities, a list of objectives and an implementation programme, highlighting that tourism already generated over three million jobs in the region.
The policy emphasizes local development, notably in creating skilled and unskilled jobs for marginalised groups and regions, and integrating local communities as guardians and beneficiaries of natural and cultural resources. Economic spinoffs and multiplier effects in tourism-related sectors such as transport, the environment, agriculture, fishing and construction are also recognised. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, these remain valid objectives, and a concerted biodiversity protection strategy can provide a pathway to prevent future pandemics, at the same time enabling tourism diversification.
When approving ECOTOUR, tourism ministers specifically called for ecotourism programmes to benefit vulnerable populations. Fortunately, West Africa hosts one of Africa's eight global biodiversity hotspots – the Guinean Forests include parts of 11 countries in West and Central Africa, with the Upper Guinean Forests subregion ranging across seven ECOWAS member states. At least 936 species of plants and animals there are globally threatened, a number likely to increase as more species are assessed.
Threats to West African biodiversity
Among the most enigmatic of West Africa's endangered species is the pygmy hippopotamus (Choeropsis liberiensis), with less than 2,500 estimated remaining in the wild, and living largely in Liberia's Sapo National Park and bordering protected areas such as Gola Rainforest National Park in Sierra Leone and Taï National Park in Cote d'Ivoire. Other endangered species include the region's Jentink’s duiker, Diana monkey and chimpanzees. The area’s rich biodiversity is further illustrated by the fact that the Oban Division of Cross River National Park in Nigeria is believed to support over 1,000 butterfly species.
According to the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), "Many of the threats to biodiversity in the Guinean Forests are linked, either directly or indirectly, to a high incidence of poverty, political instability, unsustainable practices and/or civil conflict." The threats include unsustainable agricultural practices; bushmeat hunting; the wildlife trade; logging; overfishing; oil and gas extraction; fuelwood and charcoal production; mining; and climate change. And, importantly, one of the most dangerous consequences is increased risk of pandemic events due to biodiversity destruction. There is recent evidence that increasing frequency of disease outbreaks can be linked to biodiversity loss. Disrupting natural ecosystems through changes in land use, agriculture, wildlife hunting and deforestation can precipitate dangerous diseases jumping from animals to humans.
Some conservation groups have therefore advocated that banning global wildlife trade and protecting the natural environment can restrain pathogens leaving the wild, and prevent pandemics.
Opportunities and challenges for (eco)tourism
Unlike a national tourism strategy, ECOTOUR encourages integrated aviation and ground transport networks, and the free movement of people and goods within ECOWAS. Similarly, a regional investment and regulatory and statistics approach could help address the perception of Africa as a high-risk FDI destination, via greater transparency and policy consistency. Furthermore, a regional approach can facilitate joint recovery efforts through collaboration and efficient resource allocation to counter pandemics such as COVID-19, thereby restoring tourism and biodiversity ecosystems.
ECOTOUR seeks to facilitate economies of scale, with respect to lowering transport costs, developing tourism and hospitality training centres and upgrading sector-specific professional skills and standards, as well as engendering the widespread use of digital technology. Holistic approaches can contribute to cross-border regional ecotourism products specific to intraregional customers, linking tourist circuits with multiple interstate destinations. Emphasizing complementarity rather than direct competition, a regional strategy permits each country to add unique local elements to the overall tourist offer.
In addition to COVID-19, key challenges to achieving the ECOTOUR vision, and sustained international tourism arrivals in West Africa, include concerns about safety and security; prohibitive costs and limitations of air travel and transport, recently exacerbated by mass travel restrictions; inadequacy of land transport infrastructure including access to major tourism sites; and a near-absence of both national and regional strategies to promote tourism and ecotourism. A disproportionate focus on tourists from Northern countries has under-prioritised the regional and African tourism market, estimated at over 300 million potential visitors. Hence, the ECOTOUR strategy seeks to develop and open the regional tourism market for these new customers, at the same time supporting internal tourism development strategies in the region.
The ECOTOUR 2019-2029 Action Plan includes five programmes for implementation, with a total of 39 priority actions organised into annual stages, as well as detailed mechanisms for monitoring and evaluation (ecotourism is unfortunately not specifically developed). Actual implementation levels and country-level implementation plans for the five programmes and their priority actions, however, as yet remain unreported.
Overall, the most urgent need is for financing: ECOTOUR only lists potential funding sources, with total costs estimated at US$371 million. At the pan-African level, the potential of the tourism sector has been acknowledged in the African Union's Agenda 2063: the 10-year implementation programme, for example, specifically calls for a doubling of intra-African tourism, with eco-friendly coastal tourism to increase 20% with at least 10% of public revenues going to finance community development programmes.
Conclusions: Coordinated stakeholder implementation required!
While African tourism strategies in response to COVID-19 are just beginning to emerge, the juxtaposition of ecotourism with community tourism projects in Africa has already been harnessed as a strategy to fight poverty. For example, there are around 50 community-based projects within rural areas of West Africa, notably throughout Ghana, Togo and Benin. Some are solely managed by locals, while others are supported by national tourism boards, conservation centres or non-profit NGOs. Based in rural villages, such projects encourage authentic, local, cultural and village tours, nature-based activities and homestay accommodation in order to directly benefit local communities.
Using ecotourism to develop local communities and generate youth employment – while protecting West African biodiversity – is what makes ECOTOUR implementation an urgent necessity. Together with environmental and biodiversity protection (which helps to prevent future pandemic outbreaks), ecotourism offers some of the best opportunities for decent employment, entrepreneurship, economic advancement for women and youth and rural development. Even during the current COVID-19 crisis, virtual tourism remains a rapidly growing opportunity to market destinations, develop e-commerce and convey the importance of biodiversity in preventing pandemic outbreaks.
(Eco)tourism facilitates domestic services industries, including marketing, finance and construction, as well as encouraging light manufacturing – provided the relevant policies are effectively implemented, including under the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). Public-private coordination is difficult, involving many government agencies and a wide range of economic and social sectors; likewise, tourism-related development partner coordination can also be complex.
ECOTOUR presents an opportunity to leverage institutional linkages and stakeholder collaboration. Aid for Trade ecotourism projects that prioritise biodiversity, community and socioeconomic linkages – while leveraging financing and technical assistance – are in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, now more than ever, urgently needed.
The current halt in tourism arrivals is an excellent opportunity to focus on ECOTOUR implementation, including a biodiversity/ecotourism focus. Considering the planning, preparation and training required, there is no time to waste.