Standing on the sandy shores of the crystal blue Atlantic Ocean, the smiling woman donning a bright yellow and white head-wrap and a green patterned dress stands in stark contrast to the steely grey interior of the London Bridge underground station in the UK's capital, where large billboards displaying this image adorn the train station’s walls.

The poster reads 'The Gambia: Go Discover the Smiling Coast of Africa' and is dotted around various sites in central London as part of an advertising campaign by the Gambia Tourism Authority to position the country as an alternative beach resort for European holidaymakers. Launched in early 2013, at a time when the security landscape in popular holiday destinations in north Africa such as Egypt seemed uncertain, the timing was apt. Yet this move by Gambia has been part of a wider strategy by sub-Saharan African governments to portray their countries as exotic and alternative destinations for tourists in search of new locations.

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Rwanda increases capacity

Although Rwanda, best known in tourism circles for its mountain gorillas, has experienced a steady influx of wildlife tourists, the country has long struggled to compete with more established neighbours such as Kenya, where a higher density of international restaurant and hotel operators in cities such as Nairobi and Mombasa have enabled the country to benefit from economies of scale in the tourism sector.

“Rwanda’s tourism has been able to grow, but it has got a real bottleneck,” says Chris McIntyre, the managing director of Expert Africa, a travel company that focuses on sub-Saharan Africa. “Its tourism is predicated on people seeing gorillas, and in high season the slots for gorillas are pretty full. [The country has] seven habituated groups and that is it. Until it solves that capacity issue, there is going to be a limit to how far Rwanda's tourism rises.”

Yet the decision by the US-based Radisson Hotels to construct a new hotel in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital city, shows that its government is working to build on its existing capacity. The new Radisson Blu Hotel and Convention Centre, which will have 292 rooms and is scheduled to open in 2014, is part of a carefully crafted move by the Rwandan government to create spill-over benefits in additional sectors. The ICT and the meetings, incentives, conferencing, exhibitions sectors are expected to receive a significant boost from a large inflow of visitors who are expected to stay at the convention centre’s hotel. This forms part of a wider strategy by the government to position Kigali as one of east Africa’s leading commercial hubs.

“Tourism offers developing countries a relatively easy way to increase their revenues, so we are seeing more emerging players in the industry such as Burkina Faso, Gambia, Malawi and Rwanda,” says Charles Laurie, head of Africa at political risk analysis firm Maplecroft. “There are likely to be more concerted efforts to increase tourism as it is viewed as one of the few means of easily creating jobs in an environment where job opportunities are scarce.”

The peace dividend

Sub-Saharan Africa remains one of the world’s fastest growing regions, and the International Monetary Fund predicts that its GDP will increase from 5% in 2012 to 5.4% by the end of 2013, with growth expected to be led by the region’s oil exporters. Yet countries such as Angola and Mozambique, which have experienced rapid growth in the past decade, have become hamstrung by an over-reliance on their extractives sectors, which have benefited a narrow tranche of society.

While Angola’s oil accounts for 45% of its GDP and 90% of exports, its unemployment rate stands at 25% according to the African Development Bank, and although Mozambique’s aluminium sector, which represents 37% of its total exports, fetched $1.4bn in international markets in 2011 according to KPMG, 54.7% of its population lives below the poverty line. With tourism featuring prominently on both governments’ development agendas, Jean Devlin, head of the Africa desk at political risk analysis firm Control Risks, says that both countries have worked to transform what was a negative period of civil conflict into a unique selling point.

When it comes to tourism, some of the more established countries in sub-Saharan Africa are suffering from the overdevelopment of many of their national parks and game reserves, with issues such as pollution putting off international visitors. Those countries that were in the midst of civil war until a few years ago – such as Angola and Mozambique – remain relatively unspoilt, with thriving tropical rainforests that are proving a draw for tourists.

“Angola has put tourism at the heart of its economic development plan,” says Ms Devlin. “We have seen how serious the country is – when it came to certain decisions around the allocation of exploration licences for new oil finds, there were instances where the government favoured protecting the national sites over granting licences. In Mozambique, the rainforests remained intact throughout the war because it provided cover [for combatants]. So some of those countries that experienced conflict are now seeking to capitalise on that.”

Clear-sky thinking

This collective increase in governmental efforts to promote tourism has led the region to experience a surge in tourism. The World Bank estimates that sub-Saharan Africa attracted 33.1 million visitors in 2011, up from 30.7 million visitors in 2010, and the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) states that the region's tourism industry attracted $14.6bn in capital investment.

Indeed, data from greenfield investment monitor fDi Markets shows that Middle Eastern airline companies have been among the most active investors in the region. In the past 10 years, the United Arab Emirates-based Emirates Group has invested $249m across the whole of Africa, with sub-Saharan Africa capturing $204m of these investments. The Seychelles, Mauritania, Senegal and Guinea were the lead four countries with regards to attracting FDI from the Emirates Group. Additionally, in September 2013 Qatar Airways expanded its 20th route in sub-Saharan Africa, from Ethiopia's capital city Addis Ababa. Indeed, an increasing number of international operators are flocking to the region to cater for this increase in tourist demand.

Yet a more prominent factor in the rise of the region's tourism industry has been the liberation of sub-Saharan Africa’s airspace and the ascent of African airlines. The expansion of Kenya Airways, Kenya’s leading privately owned airline, into international locations as far flung as Asia and Latin America as well as locations in Africa such as Juba in South Sudan and Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has created new tourist markets in regions that were previously underserved by private airline businesses.

“Without South African Airways or Kenyan Airways, tourism in countries such as Malawi would not exist,” says Alisa Strobel, an economist at IHS Economics and Industry Consulting. “Kenya Airways flies tourists into Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital city, via Kenya, with a stopover also in Zambia’s capital, Lusaka. Tanzania also benefits from Ethiopian [Airlines’] fleets bringing international tourists in, and South African Airlines covers the other neighbouring countries in the south of the continent, such as Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Namibia.”

Blots on the landscape

While the growth of these African airlines has put new destinations on the map as well as entrenched the position of traditionally popular destinations such as Kenya and South Africa, the performance of sub-Saharan Africa’s tourism industry on the whole has still lagged other international destinations. While regions such as Europe and Asia attracted 52% and 22% of international tourists in 2012, respectively, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation, Africa attracted just 5% of international tourists in the same period.

Although ongoing political instability, particularly in Libya and Egypt, has done much to reduce the appeal of parts of north Africa to prospective tourists, this has not translated into additional numbers visiting sub-Saharan Africa, which continues to struggle with an image problem in many Western eyes.

Indeed, the fire that engulfed Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in August this year brought Kenya’s ageing infrastructure into sharp focus, highlighting that the region’s ill-equipped infrastructure, and the restricted capacity of most airports to serve large planes, means sub-Saharan Africa is still some way from matching the appeal of more developed destinations such as the Mediterranean.

“A lot of the infrastructure is degraded and that is really the main constraint on developing the tourism sector,” says Ms Devlin at Control Risks. The World Bank recently found that while 60% of runways in north Africa were in excellent condition, only 17% of runways in sub-Saharan Africa were maintained to international standards.

An exclusive club

Another impeding factor is that while a growing number of international carriers have opened new routes across sub-Saharan for international visitors, Ms Strobel maintains that touring most parts of the continent still remains a preserve of the elite. “On the one hand, these airlines contribute greatly to increasing tourism in sub-Saharan Africa,” she says. “However, flights do not operate frequently and the absence of other domestic airlines makes the journey for the average tourist a costly adventure.

"The tourism industry in sub-Saharan Africa is still very upmarket and targets wealthy travellers. Also, most African airports have relatively short runways, which is ideal for small aircraft but not so for the larger aircraft that could bring large numbers of tourists in.”

The shift that is occurring in sub-Saharan Africa’s tourism industry is gradual but significant, and over the long term the WTTC predicts this industry in the region could become very lucrative. In its report, it predicts that international tourist arrivals will continue increasing by 4.5% yearly, and by 2023 the tourism industry could be worth $47.3bn. With sub-Saharan Africa expected to host up to 55 million visitors annually by 2023, these figures look promising. Yet it remains to be seen whether the governments’ investments into the region’s infrastructural capacity will keep up with this growth.