- Experts say encouraging travel within Africa will be crucial to boost the tourism sector’s resilience and attract more foreign direct investment (FDI) to the continent
- Just 19% of 1431 potential routes between African Union countries had some form of weekly direct air service, a recent IATA report found.
- “Beyond core infrastructure projects that could improve the poor air connectivity in Africa, the need to improve the business climate and competitiveness of the region is critical,” says Jaime Mayaki, a deputy director at UNWTO’s regional department for Africa.
In October 2022, Lai Mohammed travelled from Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city, to a pan-African event organised by the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) in Arusha, a tourism hotspot in northern Tanzania. His journey via another airport outside the continent is indicative of the impediments to African travel.
“It took me 23 hours to travel from Abuja to Arusha in a flight that [when direct] should take less than five hours,” says Mr Mohammed, who has served as Nigeria’s minister for information and culture since November 2015. “Connectivity is very important. Travel time and high cost of transportation can discourage people from travelling.”
In the wake of falling tourist numbers since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, experts say encouraging travel within Africa will be crucial to boost the tourism sector’s resilience and attract more foreign direct investment (FDI) to the continent.
“Beyond core infrastructure projects that could improve the poor air connectivity in Africa, the need to improve the business climate and competitiveness of the region is critical,” says Jaime Mayaki, a deputy director at UNWTO’s regional department for Africa.
A recent International Air Transport Association report found that just 19% of 1431 potential routes between African Union countries had some form of weekly direct air service. Despite efforts to liberalise aviation, intra-African tourism continues to face long-running impediments, such as relatively expensive tourism experiences, onerous visa requirements and government regulations restricting competition.
“Tourism revolves around political stability, security, connectivity and free movement of people. For Africa to achieve the dream of tourism contributing more to gross domestic product, we need to individually or collectively address these issues,” says Mr Mohammed.
Elephant in the room
Despite being a vast continent of 54 diverse countries and 1.3 billion people, Africa punches well below its weight in the tourism industry. Just over 19 million international tourists arrived in Africa in 2021, according to UNWTO figures — only 4.3% of the global total.
That same year, tourism receipts in Africa stood at just $17.2bn, less than half the level seen in 2019. Just three countries — South Africa, Morocco and Tanzania — made up 42.6% of these tourism receipts in 2021, according to UNWTO figures.
Mike Tavares, a tech entrepreneur originally from Guinea-Bissau and the CEO of travel booking platform Ojimah, tells fDi that for Africa’s tourism industry to recover, “the elephant in the room” needs to be addressed: the number of tourist arrivals must be increased.
“We cannot keep doing the same thing that we were doing before Covid-19. We need to change the mindset,” he says. The need to shake up the travel industry is echoed by other private sector actors.
Ben Peterson, the founder of Purple Elephant Ventures, a Nairobi, Kenya-based venture studio building tech-enabled tourism businesses, says the industry is “stuck in the 1970s”.
“There’s very little innovation happening in Africa’s tourism industry,” he says. “Tourism could be a lot more lucrative for the companies and countries in Africa.”
Among the 14 major problems that Purple Elephant Ventures is trying to solve within Africa’s tourism industry are safety and health concerns, limited digitalisation, and a lack of differentiation of tourist experiences.
Foreign tourism investors have also become more cautious about pursuing projects in Africa too. fDi Markets tracked just 17 tourism FDI projects across Africa between January 2020 and September 2022. That marks a 63% reduction from the 46 FDI projects tracked in the pre-pandemic year of 2019 alone.
Digitalisation is crucial to facilitate FDI from hotel groups, travel operators and airlines, according to Frank Gisha, who heads Rwanda’s Chamber of Tourism and the East African Tourism Platform, a private sector body.
“An investor needs to feel secure,” he says, underlining the importance of the business climate and level of information available. “But now, after Covid-19, Africa is becoming more open to working together.”
One of the African Union’s flagship tourism initiatives aims to liberalise civil aviation and boost intra-regional travel. A total of 34 countries have signed up to the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM), representing more than 80% of the existing aviation market in Africa.
Mr Mayaki notes that SAATM “will eventually reduce the need for connecting through hubs outside of Africa”, adding that on top of reducing leakages out of the continent, more intra-regional tourism can strengthen local ties.
Mr Tavares says Ojimah hopes to improve this situation by offering visas to 78 countries worldwide on its platform. Through a partnership signed with the UNWTO in October 2022, the company aims to make it easier for travellers by improving notoriously onerous visa processes.
“We need to partner with [governments] and slowly start changing the narrative about Africa,” says Mr Tavares.
Despite a “tricky outlook” for African tourism, given inflation and fears of recession in developed economies, domestic tourism can “compensate” for some lost international travellers, according to Jost Neumann, the director of programmes at the TUI Care Foundation.
“The design of tourism in many destinations is changing,” he explains. “Attracting high-value domestic tourists that hadn’t been there before means tourism becomes more relevant in the local economy.”
Mr Mayaki notes that the promotion of intra-African travel can “diversify the profiles of inbound visitors which are more familiar with the local context” and have similar tastes, which helps market entry of local suppliers.
Despite security issues, several hotel groups are betting on more intra-regional travel in less well-trodden African geographies. In May 2022, Radisson Hotel Group opened its first location in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, which will be the first internationally branded five-star hotel in the country.
“We believe the [east Africa] region has vast potential representing opportunities from business to leisure locations, and with the improving accessibility, we foresee a growing need of quality hotel accommodation,” Ramsay Rankoussi, Radisson’s vice president for development in Africa and Turkey, previously told fDi.
In May, Singapore-based Banyan Tree announced its plans to open a new five-star resort on a private island off the coast near Angoche, Mozambique. Insurgency activity in the northern region of Cabo Delgado had previously led TotalEnergies to pull out of its $20bn gas project, but the French energy giant intends to restart construction of its operations.
Eldevina Carla José Materula, Mozambique’s minister of culture and tourism, tells fDi that the government has been on a push to attract more investment and boost arrivals through changes to its tourism visas.
“Total being back in [northern] Mozambique in Palma, which they left, means a lot for us,” she says. “This should mean a lot to the international community [that the situation has improved].”
In the first quarter of 2022, international visitors to Mozambique reached just under 150,000, which was about 60% higher than the same period of 2021, according to national figures.
But even as individual countries implement initiatives to help tourism recover in the face of numerous challenges, Mr Mohammed is keen to see Africa become a “visa-free continent”, emulating the free movement seen in the Schengen Area across the EU.
“It’s about political will,” he says. “We should collaborate with our different colleagues in transport, aviation and foreign affairs to make tourism not just a standalone portfolio.”
This article first appeared in the December 2022/January 2023 print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here.