When it comes to the bigger picture, Africa is just a small player in global tourism. But why is this, and what can be done to change it, asks Graham Boynton
How well is African tourism performing in this age of the global traveller? What we know is that the continent receives just 5 per cent of worldwide tourism revenues, which does not seem like much until you compare it with Latin America, which draws in only 3.5 per cent.
If you listen to the various African tourism boards, they are doing a fantastic job and visitor numbers are booming; however, if you examine the figures more forensically, you could argue that the answer is far more nuanced. And those African tourist boards that act as praise singers would probably benefit from a little self-examination.
Take the two major tourism destinations on the continent ― South Africa and Kenya. (Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Tanzania trail some way behind.) South African Tourism boasts around 14 million foreign visitors annually, but my SA Tourism sources tell me this figure is grossly inflated, as it includes regional travellers, who come back and forth across the borders and can’t really be regarded as tourists, and international travellers who use South Africa as a hub to neighbouring countries.
The real figure, they say, is closer to 2.5 million. The official contribution is 3 per cent of GDP amounting to
US$2.1 billion ― again, the real figure is closer to little more than 1 per cent amounting to just under US$1 billion.
Kenya registers around 1.25 million foreign visitors annually, although these figures rise and fall dramatically when there are al-Shabaab terror attacks. Thus foreign tourism contributes just under US$1 billion to GDP, which amounts to around 2.5 per cent.
In both cases ― and indeed through sub-Saharan Africa ― international tourism is drawn in by the private sector, by proactive safari companies such as Great Plains Conservation and Wilderness Safaris, which invest heavily in international marketing and destination promotion.
Now look at a country that arguably has few of Africa’s natural assets, wildlife diversity and numbers or rich cultural history. Australia attracts some 8.5 million international tourists annually, and they contribute around US$37 billion to GDP amounting to a little over 3 per cent. Here the national tourism board, Tourism Australia, plays a critical role and is probably the world leader in tourism marketing.
The difference here, as Chris McIntyre, the MD and owner of the safari specialist Expert Africa, says, is that on one hand you’re talking about a First World country that can afford to invest a great deal in tourism promotion, while on the other you’re dealing with Third World countries that have other economic priorities. Apples and oranges. “And if you look at the tourism share of GDP, these top African countries aren’t doing that badly,” McIntyre says.
I beg to differ. With the exception of South Africa, Western tourism to Africa revolves exclusively around wildlife. The product has improved dramatically from the days of long-drop toilets and bucket showers, and sophisticated, luxurious safari camps such as Mombo and Zarafa can charge more than US$2000 per person per night.
And, as the Ultimate Travel Company’s Nick Van Gruisen says, “African safaris are unique. India, South America and South-East Asia have nothing to replicate the African experience.”
He’s right. Other countries would kill for the continent’s spectacular natural resources. The time has come for it to start selling itself across the world.
Graham Boynton has written for numerous newspapers and magazines, including Vanity Fair, Esquire and Condé Nast Traveller, and was the travel editor of The Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph between 1998 and 2012. A regular visitor to Africa, where he grew up, his current consultancies include work as media director for the African Travel & Tourism Association (Atta). The views expressed in this column are his own.