Despite its wealth of natural attractions, Africa still only attracts 4.2% of the world’s tourists. Unchallenged negative stereotypes about the continent and an over-reliance on traditional markets are undermining growth in the sector. This can be corrected. Report by Tom Collins.
While much has been said about the political and economic realities of Africa, one sector is consistently overlooked: tourism.
For many African countries, the sector plays a significant role in the economy and as the world deepens its inter-connectivity, the continent is presented with a sizeable opportunity, if captured.
Indeed, from picture-perfect beaches and great open savannahs to bustling metropolises full of culture, Africa has much to offer.
It is sad then that most non-Africans travelling the continent do so either only for business, or for humanitarian purposes.
Africa has still not penetrated global consciousness as a viable holiday destination and according to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) attracted only 4.2% of the world’s tourists last year.
Interestingly, the best way to explain these low figures is by looking less at tangible assets like infrastructure and power and more at intangible assets like perceptions and stereotypes.
Africa’s failure to remarket itself has left the brand overwhelmingly defined by media images of conflict, poverty and disease.
Yet for all who regularly engage with the continent, the ‘single story’ characterisation of Africa barely scratches the surface.
Thankfully, nuance is slowly being added to the continent’s voice and people like Taleb Rifai, ex Secretary-General of UNWTO, remain positive about the future while recognising the issues at hand.
Only way is up
“Tourism in Africa is still very novel but it is catching up quickly,” says Rifai. “The important thing is that the growth rate in Africa is higher than anywhere else in the world.”
Currently Africa attracts between 60-65m tourists per year but Rifai predicts this figure will more than double to 150m by 2030.
A large and often overlooked explanation of this predicted growth is the ever-increasing importance of the Chinese market in all aspects of African affairs.
Last year, the UNWTO logged that Chinese tourists spent $258bn globally, almost twice as much as the US in second place, and $70bn more than Germany, France and the UK combined.
Rifai argues that Africa must capitalise on this growing phenomenon and advises a move away from more traditional tourist markets.
“All in all, I think African countries do not take the Asian market too seriously,” he says. “The overdependence on the traditional North American and European markets has to be revisited.”
Chinese tourists themselves have clearly taken to Africa as a tourist destination.
According to Standard Bank, the number of Chinese tourists in Kenya will hit 60,000 this year; doubling the figure from 2015.
The Industrial and Commercial Bank of China has even launched a new credit card, in partnership with Kenya’s Stanbic Bank, specifically for Chinese tourists visiting the East-African country.
This shows great intent and should be recognised and built upon by government and corporations alike.
Another factor to build on is Africa’s growing interconnectivity. The difficulties associated with travelling around the African continent – ranging from visa issues to basic travel infrastructure and flight paths – have traditionally deterred tourists.
Rifai points to the African Union’s recent implementation of the Single African Air Transport Market as evidence of improvements to travel in the region.
Smaller carriers, he argues, will now be able to fly between more countries, as a de-regulated market reduces some of the financial burdens previously inhibiting local operators.
Finally, global tourism trends are aligning nicely with what Africa naturally has to offer.
“It is one of the only places in the world where you have real natural life that is well preserved and taken care of; which is consistent with the new trends,” he says.
As tourists push authenticity further up their wish-list, Africa can only stand to gain.
While global market forces are inadvertently working to ensure a boost to the number of tourists in Africa, some negative perceptions nevertheless remain at play.
Rifai argues Africa needs to actively rebrand itself to more successfully attract tourists. “Branding is bringing the best out of what you are,” he explains. “There is so much energy and goodness but none of it is being shown.”
For Rifai, the way to rebrand is by actively working to overturn or reclaim some of the stereotypes, and also, presenting a more nuanced picture of Africa.
He explains that the continent can overturn some of its negative clichés and use them to its advantage.
“You go to some African destinations and find what Europeans call chaos,” he says. “I call that energy; I wouldn’t call it chaos. I look at poor neighbourhoods and instead of seeing poverty I see life. You need to look at some of these stereotypes that are seen internationally as not so positive and introduce them in a way as if to say, this is who we are, come and see it.”
Indeed, in his view, for every negative story about Africa, the continent should respond with a thousand more about success as this would help change public perceptions. “Concentrate on stories of young men and women who are making progress,” he suggests.
At the same time, Rifai warns against of the dangers of presenting Africa to the world as a homogeneous bloc. This, he argues, already dictates how much of the world views Africa, and has had a negative impact in the past.
“We have to be very careful about marketing Africa as a whole,” he warns. “When we had Ebola the entire African continent suffered. People were unaware that Portugal and Spain were in fact closer to the epicentre than Kenya and South Africa.”
A global umbrella brand can be created but he advises it must also be textured with Africa’s hugely diverse array of 54 countries.
“There are so many cultures and sub-cultures in Africa,” he says. “Mauritius is not Angola, Angola is not Tunisia and Tunisia is not Egypt.”
As the continent’s global brand gradually improves and market forces align with what Africa has to offer, the sector will only go from strength to strength.
“I am very excited about the future of tourism in Africa,” finishes Rifai.