Africa’s tourism po­ten­tial

The Star Early Edition - - OPINION & ANALYSIS -

Azad Essa is a jour­nal­ist at Al Jazeera. He is also co-found­ing ed­i­tor of The Daily Vox

AFEW weeks ago, I was trav­el­ling from Nairobi to Bangui. On board our Kenyan Air­ways flight were mem­bers of the Rwan­dan na­tional foot­ball team, off to the Cen­tral African Repub­lic for their Africa Cup of Na­tions qual­i­fier. I was sur­prised the team wouldn’t be on their na­tional car­rier, a direct flight from the cap­i­tal Kigali to Bangui. It’s not that far. But a jour­ney that should take per­haps lit­tle more than three hours will now take seven or eight, de­pend­ing on the length of the stopover in Nairobi or En­tebbe (Uganda). It turns out they might as well have flown to Am­s­ter­dam, the Nether­lands for the game.

The per­ils of air travel in Africa is an old story. This anec­dote is tame com­pared with the chaos in West Africa. Fly from Free­town, Sierra Leone, to Gam­bia’s cap­i­tal Ban­jul, you will need to fly via Casablanca, Mar­rakesh, or Brus­sels, Bel­gium or Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, in a set of con­vo­luted con­nec­tions that could set you back three days.

As per African stan­dards go, the is­sue is pretty stan­dard: a com­edy of er­rors in­volv­ing poor in­fra­struc­ture, low pas­sen­ger de­mand, high costs, cor­rup­tion, mis­man­age­ment and hor­rid bi­lat­eral diplo­macy.

But the poor link­ages on the con­ti­nent has meant a cy­cle of dys­func­tion­al­ity and dis­con­nect. Not use­ful when it comes to trade, tourism, and the ex­change of ideas.

We have be­come so ob­sessed over land and re­sources ren­dered in for­eign hands, we’ve for­got­ten who owns the skies. While our air­lines are mis­man­aged, used as per­sonal fief­doms and run aground by worth­less pol­i­tics, around 80% of all flights in and out of Africa are via for­eign air­lines.

This is un­ac­cept­able. And it has to change. And un­til it does, travel, es­pe­cially air travel, will re­main the pre­serve of the priv­i­leged few. If any­thing, the lack of a peo­ple-cen­tred ap­proach is what has char­ac­terised air travel on the con­ti­nent. It’s al­most de­signed to be ex­clu­sive. But a quiet shift is un­der way. A re­port re­leased by the UN last week found that tourism on the con­ti­nent was on the in­crease. Four out of 10 tourists were African. Be­tween 1995-2014, in­ter­na­tional ar­rivals dou­bled. More peo­ple are com­ing to the con­ti­nent than be­fore. Four coun­tries – Egypt, Morocco, South Africa and Tu­nisia – ac­counted for more than 60% of all ar­rivals be­tween 2011-2014. But the stats tell a big­ger story.

More than 21 mil­lion jobs were cre­ated in tourism across the con­ti­nent be­tween 2011-2014. This means 1 in 14.

De­pend­ing on tourism is dan­ger­ous and ill-ad­vised, but I won­der what the pos­si­bil­i­ties would be if lo­gis­tics and in­tra-con­ti­nen­tal travel was not such a killjoy.

It just doesn’t make sense; on av­er­age, Africans need visas to travel to more than 50% of other African states, whereas ci­ti­zens of for­mer colonies or Western na­tions are free to walk in at will.

This makes the move over the past year by Rwanda, Sey­chelles, Mau­ri­tius and Ghana to of­fer an open-visa pol­icy to fel­low Africans all the more im­por­tant. As part of an AU-wide vi­sion for a more mo­bile and open con­ti­nent, the launch of the African pass­port, still in its in­fancy, could be a game-changer.

And in Rwanda’s case, the fo­cus on in­fra­struc­ture and visa-free travel has al­ready started to pay off. Tourism is its fastest-grow­ing sec­tor and the coun­try’s largest for­eign ex­change earner.

Of course, the naysay­ers will draw at­ten­tion to the end­less wars and con­flicts rag­ing in parts of east, west and cen­tral Africa as a re­al­ity check. The pace of change will re­main painfully slow be­cause there are just too many has­sles to make travel a pri­or­ity. There are un­demo­cratic regimes, pup­pet gov­ern­ments and mili­tia groups that make tourism seem too much of a First World sport; this con­ti­nent is home to Boko Haram and al-Shabaab, af­ter all. To­gether, these two groups im­pact at least six African coun­tries.

But we for­get that the con­ti­nent is home to 54 coun­tries; 17 of which have never had a “ter­ror” at­tack. More than half of the con­ti­nent has not ex­pe­ri­enced a “ter­ror­ism”-re­lated death since 2013. An­other six coun­tries have had fewer than 10 killings each. We for­get that the con­ti­nent is also far big­ger than Boko Haram and al-Shabaab.

The eco­nomic po­ten­tial from open­ing up travel and pro­mot­ing tourism is end­less.

Tourism it­self is crit­i­cal to in­clu­sive growth be­cause of its un­canny abil­ity to em­ploy a large num­ber of women and youth, skilled and un­skilled.

With so much of the con­ti­nent flanked by nat­u­ral land­scapes and wildlife, it has to be done in an eth­i­cal and sus­tain­able man­ner in con­junc­tion with lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties.

In many ways, the pro­tected re­serves are primed for eco-tourism. If done prop­erly, it also has the po­ten­tial to im­prove the liv­ing stan­dards of peo­ple, far quicker than any­thing else.

Also, af­ter their loss to the Cen­tral Africans, the Rwan­dan foot­ball team de­served a direct flight home.

GOOD SELLER: A ven­dor sells African cu­rios in Grand Bas­sam, Ivory Coast. Africa is one of the world’s fastest grow­ing tourist des­ti­na­tions ac­cord­ing to the African Devel­op­ment Bank’s Africa Tourism Mon­i­tor.

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