What is the origin of your innovation? Tell your story.
Our story is a collective one. In that I have been the glue that stuck various initiatives together I (Lee White) am the figurehead of this application. In 2002, inspired by the incredible images taken by NGS photographer Michael “Nick” Nichols and stories told by Mike Fay of his “Megatransect” expedition across Central Africa, President Bongo Ondimba of Gabon adopted a plan submitted by Mike Fay and I to create 13 National Parks. He acted incisively and announced the park creation, that had cost his government an estimated $US30 million in compensation for cancelled logging permits, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in South Africa. His vision was to fulfill commitments made 10 years earlier in Rio, to preserve his country’s natural treasures for future generations and to develop a high-end ecotourism industry to provide sustainable livelihoods for tens of thousands of Gabonese citizens.
In 2003 we realized that if tourism was to develop in Gabon we needed both to put it on the international map and to develop a new model for sustainable rainforest tourism more of less from scratch. Our efforts to put Gabon into the international limelight were highly successful, helped by the global partnership between NGS and WCS, and in particular by Nick Nichols startling images of surfing hippos, elephants on the beach, leopards, gorillas, chimpanzees, magnificent landscapes and mysterious peoples. In 2005 Oprah Winfrey named Gabon as one of “5 places to visit in your lifetime”. In addition to magazine articles and television films we created an inspirational website (spearheaded by Jean-Louis Lesage) to promote Gabonese culture and nature (www.gabonart.com) and developed a magazine to promote investment in Gabon (www.gabonmagazine.com).
Our efforts to develop tourism were met with some skepticism and lots of institutional inertia. Rombout Swanborn, a pioneering Dutch investor in ‘Conservation Tourism’ developed Africa’s Eden – www.africas-eden.com – developing the infrastructure and logistics to provide high-end nature tourism experiences in remote parts of Gabon (and from 2006 in Sao Tomé and Principé as well). On a smaller scale WCS developed an ecolodge in Ivindo National Park to allow visitors to access Langoué Bai, where rainforest gorillas and elephants mingle in one of the most pristine spots on the planet, and pilot mandrill tracking and community tourism excursions in Lopé National Park. Problems encountered by Mr. Swanborn and the WCS staff were the inspiration for the development of the “Vision for Tourism, Parks and Sustainable Development in the 21st Century”. Here I teamed up with John Gwynne, Vice-President for Design and Graphics and Chief creative Officer at WCS, Eric Chesnel, a special advisor to Gabon’s President Omar Bongo Ondimba, and Mme. Pascaline Mferri Bongo Ondimba, Chief of Staff for President Bongo. Together with Andrew and Beth Coates from Cresolus Design, Markley Boyer, Kat Lemcke and Christian Tchemambela, we formed a core team that worked with almost 200 resource people to develop an inspirational vision of how to develop a new, fresh, sustainable, ecologically sound, culturally sensitive tourism industry, which was approved in 2007 by President Bongo.
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Dr. Lee White, a Senior Conservation Scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society took his first steps into Africa’s rain forests whilst growing up in Uganda. After high school he volunteered on the Tiwai Primate Project in Sierra Leone and then worked in southern Nigeria, before moving to Gabon in 1989 to undertake a PhD on the impacts of forestry on gorillas, chimpanzees and elephants. Alongside Mike Fay he was instrumental in Omar Bongo Ondimba’s decision to create Gabon’s National Parks. Dr. White has dual Gabonese and British citizenship and is bringing up his three children in Gabon’s rainforests.
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A Vision for Gabon: Tourism, Parks and Sustainable Development in the 21st Century, has been a collective effort involving conservation NGOs, private sector investors and various Government departments to establish Gabon as the World’s premiere destination for African rainforest tourism and a model for 21st century parks. Starting with the creation in 2002 by President Omar Bongo Ondimba of a network of 13 National Parks covering almost 11% of Gabon, the project has been a 6-year effort to develop sustainable tourism from scratch. By developing an inspirational vision that has been validated by the President, focusing media attention on Gabon and launching several pilot tourism initiatives taking people into some of Gabon’s pristine natural spectacles and introducing them to the varied vivid cultures that go back at least 400,000 years, we hope to be putting Gabon on the right track towards the development of a unique tourism industry that is environmentally, economically and socially sustainable.