“Tourism in Africa is on the rise, but has not yet reached its full potential,” is the rallying cry from the African Development Bank’s Africa Tourism Monitor 2015 with a view to 2016 and beyond, as it alludes to a wealth of opportunities, continent-wide, to capitalise on rapidly growing international interest.
The third annual instalment of the study – in conjunction with New York University’s Africa House and the Africa Travel Association – was aptly titled ‘Unlocking Africa’s Tourism Potential’ upon its release at the start of the year, and through comprehensive insight into facts, figures, contributions, accounts, industry representatives and tour operators, the general consensus suggests there is so much more to come.
And this isn’t to say that the current figures make for grim reading either.
“One of the key findings of the report, as indicated in its introduction, is that the tourism sector in Africa is growing,” reported the African Development Bank upon the document’s release. “In 2014, a total of 65.3 million international tourists visited the continent, around 200,000 more than in 2013. Back in 1990, Africa welcomed just 17.4 million visitors from abroad. The sector has therefore quadrupled in size in less than 15 years.
“According to the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), Africa’s strong performance in 2014 (up four percent) makes it one of the world’s fastest-growing tourist destinations, second only to Southeast Asia.”
The multicultural, multifaceted nature of what Africa has to offer seems to be the reason behind the ever-rising interest among international tourists; diverse attractions from the pyramids in Egypt, to Table Mountain in South Africa, the Sahara, Victoria Falls, rainforests, safaris and plains combining to present a range unparalleled anywhere else on earth.
The only drawback remains the way in which the countries in question continue to market such lures, and how they can continue to build an infrastructure and industry capable of housing the scope of people who would hope to one day grace their shores.
Africa’s Top Three tourist destinations in 2014
“Two North African countries top the list of most-visited countries in Africa. Egypt experienced the strongest growth in the sector in 2014, with 454,000 more international arrivals than in 2013, an increase of five percent in just one year.
“Second on the list is Morocco, which once again recorded more than 10 million incoming international tourists in 2014, an increase of 236,000 when compared with the previous year.
“In third place is Côte d’Ivoire, in West Africa. The country is experiencing a strong economic recovery. Although it recorded “only” 91,000 more international arrivals in 2014 than in 2013, this figure represents a 24 percent rise in just 12 months. This double-digit growth provides yet further evidence of the country’s vast tourism potential.”
– African Development Bank’s Africa Tourism Monitor, 2015
Ultimately, the long-term benefits of meeting these demands speak for themselves. Already, the influx of tourists to the continent has had a dramatic effect on each country’s economies and in 2014 alone; Africa recorded US$43.6 billion in revenue from the sector.
In total, international tourism now accounts for 8.1 percent of Africa’s total GDP, and the benefits extend far beyond the initial fiscal statistics as well.
“More tourists also mean more jobs,” the African Development Bank emphasised. “Across the continent, there are around 20 million people working directly or indirectly for the tourism industry. This means that the sector accounts for 7.1 percent of all jobs in Africa.
“Jobs supported by the sector include guides, hotel staff, interpreters, aviation staff and small businesses.”
Beyond that, individual sectors are also thriving as a consequence of the rise, with industries such as hospitality experiencing particularly rapid growth in both developed and emerging nations; once again driving higher levels of employment and domestic business relationships as a result.
The Bank continued: “The hospitality sector is expanding into new countries such as Mauritania, which has, until now, remained largely on the fringes. According to the report, it is sub-Saharan Africa, rather than North Africa, that is benefiting most from the expansion of hotel chains and the corresponding increase in the number of available rooms.
“Nigeria, the continent’s most populous country, comes top of the rankings in this respect, followed by Egypt and Morocco. However, the biggest hotel development project in sub-Saharan Africa can be found in Equatorial Guinea, in the Grand Hotel Oyala Kempinski, which, when complete, will feature 451 rooms.”
Again, the onus now is to not only ride the wave of the trend, but to proactively leverage it to its full extent, and numerous initiatives are beginning to manifest around the continent to this end; both to harness the increased number of tourists already visiting the continent, and to attract even more in the future.
The African Development Bank noted: “The report is particularly complimentary about recent simplifications to the visa system and regional cooperation mechanisms, including the introduction of the e-visa and the single visa scheme, enabling tourists to visit all Southern African Development Community (SADC) member states using just one visa.
“Other examples include the “KAZA” (Kavango Zambezi) common tourist visa developed by Zambia and Zimbabwe, and the single visa covering three countries – Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda – launched by the East African Community (EAC) in February, 2014.”
These simple – but effective – schemes are already expected to boost tourism revenue and job creation by as much as 25 percent in the coming years, replicating a successful model adopted across Europe, North America, South America and Australasia over the decades.
It is just the beginning though, with more and more calls coming for an improvement in the infrastructure awaiting tourists once on the continent, as opposed to solely improving the logistical proposition for people choosing Africa as a destination in the first place.
“Transport infrastructure and services is one of the key constraints limiting growth of the tourism sector,” the Bank offered as an example. “As the report indicates, ‘Journeys in the African continent are not always seamless’. In fact, it is more difficult – and more expensive – to travel across Africa than to get there from Europe, America or the Middle East.
“The report also points to other barriers to tourism sector development in Africa, including a lack of dedicated incentive policies, the need for closer regional cooperation, weaknesses in infrastructure and security problems.”
As such, The New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) launched its Tourism Action Plan way back in 2004 to help develop a more sustainable approach to tourism, but the effectiveness and extent of the initiative is still yet to be realised despite the potential 155,000 jobs it would create, and the US$1.3 billion extra GDP it would generate.
“Security issues have posed a particular problem for the sector since 2013, especially in North Africa, Mali and coastal regions of Kenya,” the Bank added in regards to some of the key drawbacks. “The report indicates that, of the 80 countries for which travel warnings were issued by the US State Department, 30 were located in Africa.
“Moreover, although the 2013-2014 Ebola virus outbreak only affected West Africa, it created a climate of fear that spread to many other countries on the continent; even those far from the source of the outbreak.”
Negative impacts on some of the continent’s natural lures, including the increased number of animals on the brink of extinction and damaging connotations associated with poaching and illegal trading of species are further areas which Africa needs to address in order to turn around the continent’s global perception entirely; and these epitomise a general status which highlights that the recent positive growth in tourist numbers is barely scratching the surface of what can be achieved in the future.
The African Development Bank concluded: “Although international tourism is on the rise in Africa, the continent currently accounts for just 5.8 percent of the world’s incoming tourists and 3.5 percent of global revenue in the sector.
“As such, the sector still has vast untapped potential; potential that, if exploited, could kick-start rapid economic growth.”
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Travelling light can have heavy costs.
A tourist flying economy class from Britain to Kenya and back generates around a tonne of carbon emissions, according to the International Civil Aviation Organisation.
No matter how many times he reuses his towels or sits on a composting toilet when he is there, he could never hope to offset the burning of all that jet fuel.
Does that mean the very notion of “sustainable tourism” is an oxymoron?
The phrase has three possible meanings. The first is ecological. Given the contribution that transport, especially by air, makes to global warming, on this definition it is almost guaranteed to fall short.
The only truly sustainable holiday would be camping in the back garden eating berries, says Harald Zeiss of the Institute for Sustainable Tourism at Harz University in Germany.
The second is social. Ideally, when cultures meet and gain in mutual understanding, the long-term benefits will be intangible, but real.
The final one is economic. Tourists who step off the beaten track have a chance to help lift the poor out of poverty and encourage them to preserve their environments for financial gain.
The question is how much weight to give to each. According to the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), a United Nations agency, 1.1 billion international trips were made in 2014, a 4.4 per cent increase on the year before.
As popular destinations become overcrowded, more people seek places that remain comparatively unspoilt. But pristine wildernesses don’t stay pristine for long once they are on the holiday trail. The paradox of sustainable tourism is that it can be “both a destroyer of nature and an agent for its conservation”, notes Andrew Holden of Bedfordshire University in Britain.
Keeping resorts small, and perhaps even temporary, can help resolve that paradox of conservation.
Maurice Phillips and Geri Mitchell opened Sandele, an eco-resort, in Gambia in 2008. Locals are too often persuaded to sell their land to developers for less than it is worth, says Phillips, and villages can vanish once the hotels go up.
Instead, he leased the land for Sandele from villagers, and employs them in the resort. When the lease runs out in 20 years’ time, the property will revert to locals, who should by then have the skills to manage it.
The pair also run courses for locals, including on how to make “rocket stoves” that require very little wood for fuel, thereby reducing deforestation.
Those on larger scale ecotourism packages may be doing good in other ways. Concentrating large numbers of visitors in a single location increases their local impact – which can be for the better.
If a resort buys local food, says Zeiss, or invests in renewable energy generation that can be used by those who live nearby, then the surrounding area can receive a boost.
But hotels must seek ways to mitigate their negative effects. Though signs suggesting that guests can help “save the planet” by reusing their towels overstate the case, waterguzzling is one of the biggest evils of mass tourism.
An analysis by Thomas Cook, a large holiday firm, suggests that on average each tourist around the world accounts for around 350 litres of water per day by showering, using the swimming pool and the like – which rises to 6000 litres when indirect use such as food production is added. In Greece, for example, each tourist directly uses around three-fifths more water than a local.
Being more frugal with water can boost comanies’ profits. TUI, another big travel company, says it saved €2.2 million ($3.5 million) in 2014 by cutting energy and water use at 43 of its hotels.
But often it is the guests themselves who kick against energy-saving initiatives. To stop patrons leaving lights and airconditioning on when they are out, many hotels have keycards that control the electrics in rooms.
Yet some report that guests override the system by inserting a business card into the control slot before heading out, rather than waiting to recharge portable devices or put up with a stuffy room for a few minutes on their return.
Overall, the benefits of sustainable tourism outweigh the harms, thinks Dirk Glaesser of UNWTO. And Zeiss argues that the most unnecessary flights are taken not by tourists but by businessfolk who fly abroad for a toe-touch meeting that could easily have been replaced by a videocall, and then fly home the same day.
But it is unclear how many such trips actually occur. Executives already have an incentive to avoid unnecessary business travel – it is less fun than the frivolous sort.