In 2018, the African tourism industry experienced a 5.6% growth making it the second-fastest growing tourism sector in the world after Asia Pacific. In 2019, it remained in second place, experiencing additional growth and from all indications, 2020 was set to be yet another wonderful year for the industry. There were wild projections for more explosive growth in every sub sector of tourism across the African continent – that is until COVID-19 happened.
The pandemic has had a devastating effect on the global tourism industry – Africa included. At the early stages of the pandemic, it looked like tourism on the continent would be spared because foreign visitors saw Africa as a safer place to travel as cases climbed steadily in other continents. This hope did not last long though, because the virus eventually found its way into the continent and began to quickly spread. It eventually got worse and by mid-March, popular tourist destinations like South Africa and Kenya had to shut their borders to international travellers and tourists.
The impact of the pandemic on African tourism has been nothing short of catastrophic. The industry has become a major focus for development strategies in many African nations and employs at least 24 million people across the continent while simultaneously contributing about 8.5% of GDP. Travel and tourism are some of the key growth drivers for the continent but now, all these are at immense risk. According to the African Union, the pandemic has cost travel and tourism businesses almost US$55 billion.
Still, is it possible that something good can can emerge from these gloomy circumstances? Is it possible that all these negatives can in fact be channeled by African states to set tourism on a path towards a wholesome growth spurt? Revenues of most countries have been decimated but surely the suspension of international travel and tourism has had a most unlikely but positive impact on our local tourism sector?
The main reason why the pandemic has struck African tourism hard is because that industry is largely designed for Western tourists and their particular travel tastes, and this poses a weakness in the industry. As Kobby Mensah of the University of Ghana Business School said, “We are overly dependent on the West, and that in itself is a disaster, as COVID has actually shown.”
It is not unusual to visit websites for hotels, safaris or tours as an African, and find that they are priced in US dollars, a currency that belongs to none of our countries. Menus, travel discount packages, and all other activities designed to entertain the tourist are arranged with the Western visitor in mind.
Many reasons or excuses have been proffered for this state of affairs over the years but in the end, it boils down to economic reasons as most things often do. Simply, Western tourists are likely to pay more than their African counterparts. In addition, a large percentage of the African population simply cannot afford the sort of grand holiday experiences for which the sector is widely known. Those who can afford these experiences naturally gravitate towards other continents instead and so the African tourism sector over the years grew towards the sources of greater profit as plants grow towards sunlight. Except that COVID-19 has interrupted the status quo.
Now there is an increasing call for building tourism, not even just domestic tourism, but across the continent as one communal village. Necessity has always been the mother of innovation and she demonstrates this once again in this situation. The patronage from foreign tourists has dried up, and oddly enough, therein lies the silver lining. All successful businesses (tourist-oriented or not) understand that you have to do your best with the hand you are dealt with and so it is heartwarming to witness a much-needed turn in the African tourism sector.
And this is not just happening in the private sector. Many governments have steadfastly ignored the hard work required to develop the continent’s tourism sector for intercontinental tourism. Interstate travel within the continent is so difficult that as an African, it is easier to go from Lagos to London than from Lagos to Bujumbura. Bureaucracy-laden visa processes have severely hampered the desire of Africans to scour their own continent but now, the survival of the key players within the tourism sector depends on change.
Thanks to the pandemic, African countries have begun implementing changes. More efforts are now being made by key industry players to partner with the existing local markets, which can both revive the sector and prompt long-term growth. In Kenya, the authorities launched the #TheMagicAwaits campaign as a way of showing people all the places they could visit after lockdown. The campaign has sixteen sites available for tours and in South Africa, a similar campaign has been launched, with the tagline, “We are Worth Waiting For”.
In Lagos Nigeria, Eko Hotels, one of country’s top five-star hotels with a large expatriate customer base, has had to realign to meet present market realities. It has commenced food deliveries within the city with a view to aiding the frontline workers while directly interacting with members of the public. Also, with physical access to their establishments currently in limbo, African parks and resorts have gone to the next best thing– virtual tours. In Sabi Sand Game Reserve in Mpumalanga, one of the best-known safari regions of South Africa, management have started a virtual tour where tourists can tune in from any part of the world.
All these might seem pretty normal to a Westerner but these are occurrences most Africans would have considered impossible just a few months ago. Now that the low-hanging fruit of foreign tourists is no longer available, companies, governments and all stakeholders are forced to do what has to be done to survive and that means rebuilding from within. The problem with remodeling our tourism sector to favor locals has never been about our governments not knowing what to do. It has always been about them seeing the need to do what should be done. Fortunately, now they do.
Countries across the continent are gradually easing restrictions on movement and travel while international travel largely remains closed. It is estimated that international tourism won’t recover until 2021 or 2022. Until then, the industry will have to depend on local tourism to survive.
When the world returns to normal, and it will, African hotels, resorts and parks will record less profit for the year, but will have a much more expanded customer base.
And that for me is a win for us all.
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