TTG – Dossiers – A new ecotourism network to protect West African wildlife

The group’s mission is to help protect the region’s natural ecosystems, flagship species, cultural features and indigenous communities, as explained by Ola Wright, CEO of the West Africa Tourism Organization.

Bureh beach in Sierra Leone

Bureh beach in Sierra Leone

Which countries are covered by the West African Tourism Organization?

Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Ivory Coast, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, São Tomé & Principe, Saint Helena (overseas territory British), Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo are all covered by WATO.

The tourism potential of these countries is immense. The intertwined yet exotic cultures of West Africa are laden with stories of declining and growing cultures that draw any visitor into its amazing world of endless learning.

Comprised of various stakeholders in the region, WATO welcomes members operating any tourism-related business as well as coordinating initiatives and activities in different countries.

Mole National Park in Ghana

Mole National Park in Ghana

What are some of the ecotourism success stories in West Africa?

There are many hidden gems, from boutique ecolodges to community tours to environmental NGOs working in conservation. It is common to find the best ecotourism experiences in or around protected areas, sometimes even contributing to their management.

Mognori, which translates to “river bank,” is a farming village relatively close to the southeastern border of Mole National Park in Ghana. It is rich in the traditions of the Hanga clan. The current residents are descendants of a Moshi hunter who settled on Murugu lands before the 18th century slave raids. The village has become a thriving ecotourism business offering various activities such as canoe safaris on the Mognori River – the chance of seeing wildlife such as patas monkey, green monkey, Nile crocodile, birds and antelopes along the banks of the river is high. . The community also offers village visits to learn how to make shea butter and black soap. Visitors can stay overnight in the park at Zaina Lodge or opt for a rural homestay.

In the case of São Tomé and Principe, the PTRS (Associação de Promoção do Turismo Responsavel e Sustentavel) has partnered with the Obô National Park Authority to monitor flora and fauna, provide maintenance services for trails and public spaces and help educate nearby communities about the importance of the park. They also organize thematic tours in rural areas to allow visitors to learn more about organic cocoa, coffee, pepper and other spices, and to have closer interactions with producers and cooperatives.

The uncrowded beaches and offshore islands of Sierra Leone are as unique as they are plentiful. Pristine rainforests, mountainous topography, genuine hospitality, resilience and positive spirit of Sierra Leoneans are all key ingredients for a vibrant and growing tourism sector. These elements combine with its place in the world history of the anti-slavery movement as the “land of the free”; the relative proximity of the main tourist markets in Europe; and long-standing relationships with the United States, all position the country to capitalize on ecotourism, low-density beach tourism, and special-interest travel niches. These include diaspora tourism, bird watching, sport fishing and hiking.

Birdwatching is one of the strengths of niche tourism in West Africa

Birdwatching is one of the strengths of niche tourism in West Africa

What are some of the challenges in promoting ecotourism in West Africa?

The challenges are many, but the first that comes to mind is the lack of visibility and communication. Ecotourism operators are very dedicated people with a genuine commitment to sustainability, but sometimes lack sufficient resources to market themselves and reach the markets that fit their business models.

What is the objective of the new ecotourism network in West Africa?

The main objective of the West Africa Ecotourism Network, WAEN, which is to be launched in November, is to fill these gaps and promote synergies in the region to give more visibility to this sub-sector. The network will be responsible for finding ways to harmonize and improve the range of efforts in the sub-region aimed at advancing the ecotourism industry. The objectives are to identify challenges or barriers to the development and practice of ecotourism and to provide various aspects of support that will help overcome the multiple challenges.

Members of the network are public and private ecotourism operators or site and project managers, event and initiative coordinators, as well as general tourism practitioners who play a vital role in the travel aspect of global industry activities.

The patas monkey is found throughout West Africa

The patas monkey is found throughout West Africa

Why is it so important to master the fundamentals?

We need to create the best conditions for genuine ecotourism to thrive in the region. Our natural ecosystems, flagship species, cultural features and communities are impressive, but they are also fragile assets for tourism. There is always a risk of overuse. It is also important to ensure that operators do not take advantage of the “hype” of ecotourism to promote sometimes dubious practices and fall into what could be called “green-washing”. Ecotourists are smart travelers and will quickly spot those who are not serious about their ecotourism business. They can then share a bad impression of the destination, thus affecting the competitiveness of others. At WAEN, we adhere to a simple but widely accepted definition of ecotourism, and want to ensure that the fundamental principles are shared and respected throughout the tourism value chain, for the benefit of all.

How can agents learn more about the West Africa region?

Through WAEN and WATO, travel agents have access to a wide variety of tour operators and those focusing on ecotourism. They can also get in touch with operators and project managers on the ground via westafricatourism.com.

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