The present and the future of African Tourism and its potential for growth

Just within a few decades, international tourism has become an integral part of the economic industry with many countries heavily relying on it. Earlier, people from developed nations played tourists in other developed nations, but now, with tourists searching for adventure and being relatively more open to other cultures, this is changing. After seeing rapid growth in Asia with the region quickly becoming the fastest-growing tourist destination, one can say that Africa, our world’s second-most populated continent, also has the potential to become an attractive destination for tourists.

Visitors to a cultural festival in Benin

Tourists experiencing a cultural festival in Benin (Photograph: Panos / George Osodi)

Problems that African countries are facing

Despite having some of the most valuable natural resources, 47% of the sub-Saharan African population lives on less than $1.90 per day. According to the World Bank statistics, the unemployment rate among youth aged 18-24 years was between 13% and 15%. In the same period, this number is 9-10% in South Asia. The youth in Africa constitutes almost 37% of the labour force but makes up 60% of the total unemployment. Despite making up for 15% of the world’s population, Africa accounts for only 5% of international tourist arrivals. The youth population in Africa is expected to double to over 400m people by 2045 and this makes the policymakers wonder, what can be done to alleviate this challenge?

Tourism can be the answer

In Africa, travel and tourism account for 8.1% of the GDP (2015) at USD 180.0 billion, already contributing significantly to the economy. In the same time, it has generated 9,083,000 direct jobs making up for 3.9% of total employment on the continent. According to the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), international tourist arrivals in Africa increased to 63.6 million in 2012, compared to 17.4 million in 1990. All this data shows that tourism in Africa is growing and its economic potential is remarkable, with direct and indirect impact on employment.

Tourism can turn out to be a very viable and sustainable option for developing countries as it directly benefits the poorer people through employment and also has an impact on the foreign exchange earnings. African tourism would create jobs for the continent’s rapidly growing population, help in alleviating poverty and give Africans living in the rural areas a better understanding of the world. It can also have a great social and economic impact that could strengthen the link between Africa and the rest of the world. Tourism will accelerate policy and economic reforms, improve infrastructure, help remote and developing regions, and more importantly, empower the African youth. With natural beauty and cultural heritage already present in the region, how can the tourism in Africa be developed what does its future look like?

Expansion of African Tourism

First and foremost, the ‘scaling up’ of tourism in Africa would significantly depend on the improvement of infrastructure (better transport like airline connections, roads and railways). It would also heavily rely on professional widescale marketing and in addition to that, open borders. According to the data released in the 2016 UNWTO report, international tourist arrivals in Africa increased by an estimated 8% mainly due to improved air and sea connectivity and simpler visa procedures. These figures show that if authorities make it is simpler for people to visit Africa, more people will definitely want to come in and spend money which would benefit the region.

Then, Why isn’t Africa already a popular tourist destination?

Before jumping onto anything else, it is critical to understand the reason why the African tourism industry, in general, hasn’t been able to become an attractive destination for tourists. Few of major reasons why certain African economies have been unable to taste success in the tourism sector include difficult and costly tourism visa policies, poor infrastructure which limits access for tourists, restrictive laws, mishandling of key tourism assets and competition from more established regions. The most important thing out of all the above is infrastructure – considered to be among the basic requirement for a globally competitive economy – which is lacking quality.

Inbound Arrivals 2016

Map showing Africa as an unpopular destination for travellers

The Future

A World Bank report released in 2014 suggested that 34 out of 48 Sub Saharan African countries currently have the ability to become successful tourist destinations by establishing a strong political support to develop an industry which will attract private investment to finance and sustain tourism. Investments in key infrastructure sectors resulting in improved facilities for the tourists will definitely boost the number of visitors in Africa in the future.

With Global hotel chains expanding across Africa and the region attracting both international and local investment, we can surely anticipate an increase in demand from international tourists as well as the continent’s own fast-growing population. It would now be up to the regional governments to work closely with the private sector helping them in improving key services like transport, electricity and infrastructure to develop tourism for a more expansive growth. Only joint effort and contribution from all authorities can help in achieving prosperity, growth and wealth creation.

Countries like Thailand, Mexico and Turkey have shown us how proactive government support can turn tourism into a transformative development tool. In these, and many other countries, tourism barely existed a few decades ago, but joint efforts and contribution from all have resulted in these nations achieving the apparently impossible transformation of the tourism industry. The disposable income of the middle-class Africans is slowly rising; hence, we can also expect domestic travel for leisure purposes to increase.

Challenges await

The rise of the tourism industry in Africa won’t come easy, as it would be competing for tourists against destinations in Asia and South America. Also, most of the countries in Africa are initiating tourism, unlike those in Asia and elsewhere, who are scaling it up and are sustaining it. On top of that, the tourism industry of the region faces constraints which include basic concerns associated with health, security and political instability. Although a few things indicate us that it would be a massive challenge to bring Africa’s tourism industry on its feet, it is nonetheless something doable and can be accomplished if the governments put the right strategies in place and persist with them until they start reaping significant results.

Even though there are some countries in Africa which are ready for tourism, many aren’t, which is why it is necessary for those involved in the African tourism industry to be focused on being competitive in the international market and gaining the essential political support which will allow them to meet the growing challenge. The authorities need to acknowledge the role of air transport and the need to relax the air policies. The scale of development which is suitable to the country’s present resources also needs to be assessed so that tourism in Africa can experience sustained growth.

There is no doubting that tourism has great potential for growth in Africa, but just like any other sector, it will come with its own sets of risks and challenges. One of the social ills that tourism can foster is prostitution (illegal in many countries) as it is said to be a by-product of unemployment. Another risk that tourism brings with it is of fuelling higher prices for land in touristic areas. This would result in the land being robbed off from the poor population living in the region. If tourism goes out of control, it can also pose a threat to cultural and social assets, on which tourism relies, to deteriorate over time. Although tourism will create other challenges, they are not something unmanageable and can be coped with.

Conclusion: Tourism as an economy-flourishing tool

All in all, tourism can turn out to be a very effective and sustainable development tool for Africa if managed carefully. It can really help in energizing the developing economies in Africa by alleviating poverty and providing jobs to the young population. If the region wants to develop tourism as an effective economy-strengthening tool, the way forward would be to ask for more government support to build better infrastructure which will, with the natural beauty already present in the region, help in attracting more tourists. Challenges will come along the way, but with the regional economies getting stronger and the disposable income of general Africans also increasing, we can confidently expect the graph of tourist arrivals in Africa to rise in the future.

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