corona: a big setback for ecotourism in benin
Author: Anke Driessens
Corona is a global crisis. Of all the major economic sectors, tourism will be hit the hardest, according to UNWTO. They estimate the possible consequences of the virus on the basis of previous crises such as the SARS virus in 2003 and the global economic crisis in 2009, as well as on the basis of the rapidly changing reality of the virus. UNWTO arrives at an estimated 20% to 30% reduction in tourist arrivals worldwide. The economic impact will be enormous.
tourism in benin
The impact on tourism in African countries is also large. Nonetheless, the impact of the Corona virus on human lives in African countries has remained more reduced. This is also the case in Benin, where so far there are 1805 people infected and 36 deceased.
Benin is one of the smaller countries in Africa. It has about as many inhabitants as Belgium. It is a country that has a lot to give culturally, but whose potential has remained unexploited for a long time. It offers wildlife-rich nature parks like Pendjari, afro-Portuguese architecture, remains of the slave trade and a lively vodou culture. Benin has the potential to be one of the most popular tourist destinations in Africa. Yet the sector currently represents only 0.7% of GDP.
The country would like to change this with their action programme 'Bénin Révélé', with a specific focus on ecotourism. This form of tourism is generally seen as a strong tool for development. It can provide opportunities for job creation, strengthen a country's cultural identity and help protect the environment. Sustainable tourism thus becomes a tool for sustainable economic development. This project has already invested €1 billion in tourism and created more than 100,000 jobs. But is this now all lost money and effort?
As a student I spent 5 months in Benin, where I worked in an eco-centre in Parakou. I also spent a month in Calavi, with Eco-Bénin. This NGO sets up local projects for 'responsible, equitable and supportive human development'. Eco-Bénin uses ecotourism as an economic pillar of the development of local communities, either in regions where income traditionally linked to fishing or agriculture is falling, or in places with a natural and cultural heritage that is threatened with extinction or poorly exploited.
The NGO's activities focus on the development of simple tourist services that primarily benefit the local communities and contribute to the protection of their natural resources and cultural identity. That is why they strive to distribute revenues fairly among the communities and to promote and improve the natural resources. All Eco-Benin projects are managed by the local communities, with the aim of ultimately becoming autonomous in the organisation of eco-tourism activities and the value chain in their village. Part of the income is earmarked for projects of common interest or to help the poorest families.
Tourism comprises a very important part of the informal sector in Benin and is a major source of income for the most vulnerable people in this country. The coronacrisis affects the standard of living of those people working in Eco-Bénin. In Benin, unlike in Belgium, there is a collectivist rather than an individualistic culture. Not being able to see each other or having to visit and keep their distance is therefore maybe even more difficult for the Beninese people.
the power of nature
The people of Eco-Bénin believe that the sector will have to rely on solidarity in order to recover. The tourism sector will have to focus first and foremost on its own inhabitants and adjust what they offer before international travellers can become the focus again. Some believe the crisis can have a positive effect. We could start acknowledging more the power of nature 'because those who respect nature protect their environment from any danger'. It is then important that Africa has faith in its own local knowledge and wisdom connected to nature.
During my stay in Benin, I was able to really discover the potential of the country. People are more and more aware of their own abilities and the value of their own culture. I hope they won't lose their courage and strength as a result of the Corona crisis. On the contrary, I hope they will emerge with greater vigor by going even further in their approach. I'm convinced that this is possible, more than ever before.