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Driving Tourism in Africa

By Kourtney Webb

Every year, the business of tourism in Africa takes center stage at New York University Africa House’s Presidential Forum On Africa Tourism. The forum's 11th edition, held in September, addressed the theme, “Driving Africa Tourism Growth Through Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Technology.”

Africa remains one of the fastest growing markets for travel and tourism globally, ranking just behind the leading tourist destination, Southeast Asia, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization. A total of 65.3 million international tourists visited the continent in 2014 – around 200,000 (or 4 percent) more than in 2013. Compare those figures to 1990’s, when Africa welcomed just 17.4 million visitors from abroad.  

Stephen Hayes, president and CEO of the Corporate Council on Africa, likens tourism to a stepping-stone that leads to growth in other areas.  

“Tourism is a critical touch point for healthcare, infrastructure and living,” Hayes said at the forum. “Tourism can be a huge economic driver. 2017 is the year of tourism. There could be Singapore’s all over Africa.”

The Corporate Council on Africa in January assumed operation of the Africa Travel Association, which now functions out of CCA’s offices in Washington, D.C. Established in 1975 as the oldest U.S. travel organization dedicated to US-Africa tourism, the association collaborates with NYU Africa House on the Annual Presidential Forum on Africa Tourism and organizes the ATA Annual World Tourism Conference, the 41st edition of which will be held in the spring of 2017.     

A key goal of this year’s presidential forum was to address one of the most prominent inconveniences tourists face when traveling to and within Africa: airline connections.

“Africa hasn’t positioned itself very well here,” lamented Erastus Mwencha, deputy chairperson of the African Union Commission. “Tourists don’t want to focus on traveling, they want to focus on the destination. They spend so much time at airports. The solution is to have more connections to and from Africa.”

Although many major airlines fly to Africa from North America, Europe, and Asia, visitors are subjected to severe restrictions on air service aimed at protecting the share held by African state-owned carriers. Once visitors arrive on the continent, they face difficulties in intra-Africa travel, whether going from east to west, north to south and vice versa, reports the Africa Tourism Monitor.

Those difficulties hinder the continent’s tourism potential. Implementing the 1999 Yamoussoukro Declaration calling for “open skies” for Africa, would abolish those restrictions, freeing air markets from government intervention and ultimately bringing important gains to the continent.  

“We want to promote Africa as the product in the holistic sense, so that you can see Central Africa, the great pyramids and other attractions,” Mwencha said.

The New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD)’s Planning and Coordinating Agency reports that Africa’s aviation industry currently supports 6.9 million jobs and contributes US$80 billion to the continent’s overall gross domestic product. Open Skies for Africa could create an additional 155,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in annual GDP for the continent if one quarter of African countries were to put this decision into action.

The forum's plenary sessions concluded with a roundtable featuring senior tourism officials from Mali, Namibia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe, and which tackled the issue of rebranding Africa as a vacation hot spot. Speaking as Zimbabwe’s tourism minister and chair of the UN World Tourism Organization Commission for Africa, Walter Mzembi condemned images of Africa portrayed in Western mainstream media as not true depictions of the continent and what it has to offer.

“We cannot depend on images that come from CNN or NBC,” said Mzembi. “We are relying on people with smart phones who tweet real images of our countries to show what visiting this beautiful place is really like.”

Sidi Yahya Tunis, Sierra Leone's minister of tourism and cultural affairs, described a strategy he has already implemented to combat negative stereotypes of his country.

“We had a team from France and Holland who went to develop short documentaries about my country,” said Tunis. “We are also in touch with the Discovery Channel in hopes to get a film crew to Sierra Leone so we can change the perception of the country on an international scale.”

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