The idea of developing infrastructure and regulations in order to promote intra-African tourism has long been brought to the discussion table, but results have been slow to follow. Nevertheless, there is an increasing trend in many African countries to try to attract regional as well as overseas tourists. According to the World Bank, Africa, the 75% increase in tourists to Rwanda from 2010 to 2013 was due largely to an increase in tourists from African countries. As we will see, the draw cards are compelling and are already pushing some governments to cooperate to increase tourism and make travel easier between African countries.
Much work still needs to be done, however, to overcome deterring factors. Even where travel is being made easier, the focus is often still on tourists from non-African countries: Projects such as the Univisa for Sub Saharan Africa have been in the works for well over a decade now and although a smaller pilot project is now going ahead, it is still not aimed at regional tourists.
The benefits of the tourism industry are well known, job creation and attracting investment being some amongst many reasons for countries to welcome tourists and promote responsible tourism. At present, although countries on the continent typically receive more tourists from African countries, these tourists spend less than their overseas counterparts and so less effort has been put into attracting and accommodating them. In South Africa, for example, roughly 70% of tourists came from other SADC countries, yet tourism is still predominantly marketed at tourists from Europe, North America, Asia and, more recently, the Middle East.
However, with Africa’s economic boom and the growth of a middle class in numerous countries, many in the industry now see other African countries as a potential major source of growth. Also, the influx of tourists from other African countries is much less seasonal than that of European, American and Asian tourists, and could provide a welcome respite from the traditional ‘down season’ that the tourism industry experiences each year. In smaller regional areas, linguistic and cultural ties would also make catering to this market relatively easily.
According to the African Development Bank ‘African Tourism Monitor’, because Africa currently has some of the fastest-growing economies in the world, and at the same time tourism is playing an important role in much of the continent’s economic growth, expanding the market to attract African tourists would be an important step in capitalising on the growth potential of the tourism industry.
Obstacles which intra-African tourism has faced include expensive and sometimes difficult transport between countries, predominantly in air travel, restrictive visa requirements and a comparatively small culture of leisure travel.
Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, Chairperson of the African Union Commission, sees weak infrastructure and “dependence on external demand” as factors which prevent tourism contributing as much as it could to growth and development. She says the AU is examining ways to help member states expand intra-African exchange for trade and tourism.
Cross-border infrastructure is a major deterrent, and the African Development Bank has supported investment in this area, with such things as the Infrastructure Consortium for Africa (ICA) and Programme of Infrastructure Development in Africa (PIDA).
Visas constitute another major obstacle. The average African traveller needs visas to visit 60% of the countries on the continent. Removing restrictions such as this would be a significant step in promoting growth. This is clear when comparing the Seychelles, which does not require that tourists apply for visas before arriving in the country, and Mauritius which did until 2013. The Seychelles experienced 7% growth per year between 2008 and 2013, while Mauritius experienced almost no growth at all, which prompted it to begin relaxing visa requirements for 75 countries, 30 of which are African.
SADC has for many years considered instituting a Univisa for the Sub Saharan African region, and this year the World Bank is funding a pilot project in Zimbabwe and Zambia. The visa, however, is intended for non-SADC international tourists who wish to visit multiple countries in one trip. So, while this recognises some advantages of freer travel within the region, it does not address the issue of visa restrictions for residents of the region. Bureaucracy together with political fears of the consequences of freer movement between countries may prevent any major steps being taken in this regard for some time.
Lastly, travel between African countries is known for being expensive and inconvenient. A study by the African Region of the World Bank found that intra-regional air transport comes at a high cost, is irregular and sometimes not available at all. The private air transport sector has tried to compensate for this, but governments typically prefer to support a national airline to the detriment of smaller airlines that create competition and could lower prices. For a large difference to be made, air transport will have to be freed up and investment must be made in infrastructure, training and safety.
At a time when development plays such an enormous role in political discussions at almost every level, and with the economic growth which Africa is seeing, countries should take more concrete action to tap into the African market in order to fully exploit the potential growth of the tourism industry and all that it entails: improved infrastructure for trade as well as tourism, job creation and valuable regional cultural exchange.
By Jennifer van Dorsten
(Kwintessential Africa Translation Agency has years of experience working with language experts, translation and interpretation in South Africa and Africa)