Transforming stumbling blocks into stepping stones

Ecotourism in Benin

Till Serafimov

Benin - the small country at the Gulf of Guinea - is known as a travel destination rather among francophone travellers. With its hospitable population and its scenic, historic, and cultural treasures, Benin is one of the insiders tips for West Africa. However, the country is also struggling with a diverse set of problems. The limited education and employment opportunities in the north of the country have forced many young people to move to the better-off south.

Moreover, the rural biodiversity is endangered by people's strong dependence on fishery, agriculture and hunting - activities which are, due to overall resource scarcity, short-term oriented. With sustainable tourism, designated to protect the environmental and cultural heritage and create local income, Benin can tackle several problems at once and can at the same time create an attractive travel destination for responsible travellers. This development is to be illustrated by the two following examples: 

Ecotourism saves Ecosystem: Lake Ahémé

For many years, Lake Amémé, situated in the south-west of Benin, has been under existential threat. Strong population pressure has lead to significant overfishing, shore erosion and logging of the surrounding forests. Ecotourism projects have emerged in several villages, creating economic incentives to prevent the ecosystem from collapse. By showing visitors the lake and it´s surroundings, fishermen and their families get a higher income compared to the scanty fishery. Being on the lake, the fishermen tell visitors about their daily lives and explain their special tools and techniques.

On land, visitors are invited to get insights into the unique voodoo culture. The "sacred forests", where flora and fauna are inviolable, are also part of this voodoo culture. Obviously, increased population pressure results in a growing desire to get a grip on those "mini reserves" and their resources. The guided tours through those forests, approved by local spiritual leaders, are an important contribution to their protection. Part of the revenues is spent on social projects, benefiting the community as a whole.

In addition, visitors have the opportunity to plant mangroves on the lake shore, under the instruction of local guides. With this innovative and exemplary activity, visitors can contribute directly to the recovery of the local ecosystem. Step by step, the ecosystem of the lake recovers its natural shore vegetation. Mangroves do not only prevent shore erosion and lake sedimentation, but also serve as an important breeding ground, hiding place and source of food for endangered fish species and crabs. Furthermore, the small fee paid for mangrove-seedlings provides the local ecotourism administration with additional revenues.

More than 750,000 new mangroves planted by countless visitors and school groups are already an impressive result. The goal is to have one million mangroves planted by end of 2011.

Vocational training in ecotourism: Starting from zero

Half way between Natitingou and Boukoumbé, in the mid-west of Benin, there is a small village called Koussoukoingou. The region is rich in cultural particularities, amongst them the fascinating "Tata Somba": fortress-like family homes. The area is especially attractive for visitors who are on their way to Togo or the Pendjari national park. Since 2006, a community-based ecotourism business has been developed together with the villagers.

However, many obstacles had to be overcome: Apart from the generally poor school education, only very few villagers had any experience in the tourism business. Therefore, an effective training scheme had to be elaborated with care, taking into account educational deficits, but also insisting on the minimum standards of the tourism business in terms of comfort, hygiene and conventions. In countless training workshops and simulations, the villagers acquired the necessary skills and self-confidence needed to successfully welcome visitors. The village committee founded specifically for the ecotourism activities had to be trained in basic administration and management in order to enable smooth procedures and a proper reinvestment of revenues, benefiting the community as a whole.

Opportunities for women

Years of work have yielded fruits. By now, nine eco-guides and four female caterers have taken up their work. Ten owners of "Tata Somba" were trained in showing their houses to visitors and accommodating them in the rustic "chez l'habitant" (home stay) style. In addition, five women and men have been trained in selling and presenting their handicraft to the visitors.

In order to respect the necessary quality standards, all ecotourism service providers are trained and certified by the NGO "Benin Ecotourism Concern" which also issues badges to indicate the current state of training to the guests. The consistent positive feedback of the visitors has enhanced the self-confidence of the villagers and has been an encouragement to carry on.

At the beginning, the integration of women in the tourism business was met with widespread scepticism if not resistance by most of the male villagers. After some time, however, they realized that the women involved in catering and accommodation earned a solid complementary income for the family. Other women were even encouraged by their husbands to join the ecotourism service providers and contribute to the development of a veritable ecotourism in Benin from the grassroots.

Further information: Benin Ecotourism Concern (Eco-Benin)

Till Serafimov worked in Benin in 2009 as an ecotourism project consultant and is currently working for the German Development Service (DED) in the Ugandan renewable energy sector.

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