Despite the threat of international terrorism and high aviation fuel costs, recent figures from the UN's World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) and the Word Travel and Tourism Council (WCCT) indicate that sub-Saharan Africa's tourist sector is booming. Sub-Saharan Africa provided the world's most rapid growth in 2005 while the overall growth of continental tourism was double the global average. An increasing number of African states are enticing foreign visitors, while more Africans are discovering the delights of neighbouring countries. The industry as a whole certainly does have a down side in terms of consuming resources and putting pressure on natural environments, but properly managed it can boost economic growth and promote understanding between different peoples.
Africa registers record growth
Total travel and tourist revenues for the whole of Africa were expected to generate $73.6bn of GDP in 2005, equivalent to 8.8% of the regional economy. The sector also provided 3,877,200 jobs directly and a total of 10,647,000 jobs indirectly in 2005, or 6.8% of all employment in sub-Saharan Africa.
According to UNWTO figures for 2005, tourism revenues were up 10% on 2004, around double the global rise of 5.5%, as sub-Saharan Africa provided the most rapid growth of any region. Visitor numbers increased at roughly the same pace with total numbers up from 33.3m in 2004 to 36.7m in 2005. The number of visitors to sub-Saharan Africa from outside the region increased even more sharply, up 13% to 23.1m.
The most rapid growth was recorded in Kenya, where the number of visitors increased 26% on 2004--which itself was a big increase on 2003--and Mozambique, where the number of visitors increased a massive 37%.
Kenya's success was partly the result of the sector rebounding from a decline in 2002 and 2003, but Mozambique is certainly a rapidly growing destination, partly because of its increasing popularity among South African tourists.
The rise in the more established tourist destinations was more modest, although in North Africa, Egypt registered a 6% increase, Morocco 5% and Tunisia 8%.
Tourist sector revenues were sharply hit by the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US and the subsequent war on terror. The East African tourist hotspots of Kenya and Tanzania were also affected by a number of bomb attacks, principally those on the US embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi; but while the industry is particularly prone to domestic or international instability, it is also used to dealing with it.
Although visitor numbers in many African countries fell in 2002 and 2003, they have since rebounded strongly and the Kenyan government has announced that the country earned more from tourism in 2005 than ever before.
The secretary-general of the UNWTO, Francesco Frangialli, argued: "The tourism sector has gained substantially in resilience over the past years. In spite of the turbulent environment we live in nowadays, destinations worldwide added some 100m international arrivals between 2002 and 2005."
The latest UNWTO report states that the terrorism threat will continue to hit growth in the tourism sector but it also adds that "experience shows that its impact lately has been rather limited and short-lived". The UNWTO, which is based in Spain, predicts that Africa will continue to lead the way in tourist sector growth in 2006.
However, there is certainly plenty of room for growth in the tourist sectors of many African countries. More than 15 times as many tourists visited a European as an African country last year and indeed more tourists visited Spain alone than the entire African continent.
The number of global tourist arrivals reached 800m in 2005, so there is no reason why Africa should be content with less than 5% of this total. The WTTC reports that the African tourism industry will be worth $147bn by 2015 in terms of GDP, employing 14,222,000 people in the region by the same date.
This is the result of a recognition by hotel owners, tour operators and governments alike that Africa is an increasingly attractive proposition for tourists and that there is money to be made from what is one of the world's biggest and fastest growing industries.
Pros and cons
One of the most difficult questions is determining whether tourism has a positive or negative impact on a country. Many African states have traditionally relied on the export of agricultural commodities, which has resulted in very vulnerable economies. Tourist revenues can also fluctuate very widely according to changes in fashion and political or security crises; so it could be argued that concentrating on developing a tourist industry would merely accentuates this vulnerability. Yet at least it helps to widen the base of a national economy and provides another source of revenue.
It is equally difficult to assess the pros and cons of tourism on infrastructural investment. While a rise in tourist numbers often leads to higher investment in roads, airports and other transport infrastructure, it generally also absorbs more water and power resources. This could trigger the construction of a new power plant, improvements in a nation's power grid or the replacement of ageing water pipes, thereby benefiting many people, but it can equally divert scarce resources away from already embattled residential and industrial consumers.
The president of the International Institute for Peace Through Tourism, Louis d'Amore, says: "Of the 49 least developed countries, 46 of them now have tourism as the largest foreign exchange earner." This can either be a good indication or a damning one, depending on whether the concentration on tourism has helped to generate such poverty or is helping to end it.
Uganda's minister of tourism, Akaki Ayumu Jovino, argues the latter. He says: "With proper planning, the people will not be exploited. In Uganda, 20% of all gate receipts go directly to local communities to spend on projects as they see fit. It is becoming our number one foreign exchange earner. Our studies also show that one tourist means eight jobs, not just in the tourism industry but also in agriculture and all the support businesses." After the chaos of the 1970s and early 1980s, Uganda now attracts over 500,000 tourists a year and a tourist industry has been borne out of virtually nothing.
The Mission Africa initiative, which was launched by the International Council of Tourism Partners (ICTP), aims to triple tourism income on the continent by 2015. The president of the ICTP, Geoffrey Lipman, strikes a more balanced view, arguing that only properly planned and directed tourism can benefit a national economy as a whole. He says: "It will have to deliver to local communities; it will have to meet sustainability criteria; it will have to meet international anti-corruption and fair trade tests."
Africa has many of the attractions that lure tourists to other parts of the world in the form of sun, sea and sand, while the variety of different cultures and environments provide a host of cultural attractions that are only just beginning to be tapped.
It does, however, have other attractions that other parts of the world cannot compete with. The pros and cons of the impact of a traditional East or Southern African safari may be debated but it is possible to limit the environmental impact of visitor numbers through careful management. In addition...