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The tourism outlook for Africa post-pandemic

24 September 2020

The tourism sector in Africa is expected to return to normal in the second half of 2021. That was the prediction made by Professor Dr Wolfgang Thome, the Publisher of ATC News, East Africa’s largest aviation, tourism and conservation news blog.

ATC News publisher
Dr Wolfgang H. Thome is the publisher of ATC News and is based in Uganda

In an exclusive interview with, Wolfgang pointed out that the COVID-19 pandemic curve is accelerating in Africa, forcing many countries to maintain lockdown restrictions. As other countries around the world are also struggling to keep the pandemic under control, it is unlikely that international tourists will return to the continent in the near future. However, countries that rely heavily on tourism revenue such as Egypt, Kenya, Tanzania and Seychelles had opened their borders to international flights as of mid-August 2020.

State of tourism in Africa pre-pandemic

Historical Cairo
Ongolo Top 10 recommendation: Egypt is blessed with a rich cultural heritage and history. It offers tourists everything from the Pyramids, Museums, Mosques, beaches and amazing food

According the UN World Tourism Organisation, Africa recorded 78.5m international arrivals in 2018. (Please note that an adjustment was made to the published data as the UNWTO erroneously tagged Egypt to Middle East and not Africa).
The top ten destinations in Africa were: Morocco, Egypt, South Africa, Tunisia, Zimbabwe, Cote d’Ivoire, Uganda, Kenya, Mauritius and eSwatini (formerly Swaziland). It is important to note that not all international arrivals are leisure travellers. The UNWTO definition is that anyone out of their regular abode for more than 24 hours counts. Many of the international arrivals in eSwatini, Uganda, Zimbabwe or Cote d’Ivoire are not leisure travellers but traders and people who cross the border to visit friends and relatives.

Cape Town
Ongolo Top 10 recommendation: Cape Town receives over 2.5m international visitors annually and is a popular tourist and conference hub
The 78.5m international arrivals generated $50bn in tourism receipts for Africa in 2018, representing 6% of global international arrivals and 3% of tourism revenue. Africa still lags behind Europe which has six out of the top ten tourist destinations and attracts 710m international arrivals who generate $510bn in tourism revenue. Furthermore, tourists spend the least amount in Africa with an average of $637 per tourist compared to $802 in Europe, $1,250 in Asia/Pacific and $1,546 in the Americas. Africa also represents the smallest population of tourists (3%) compared to Europe which accounts for 48% of total travellers.

Blue Medina Morocco
Ongolo Top 10 recommendation: Morocco's Blue City, Chefchaouen, is one of the many reasons Morocco gets the highest number of tourists in Africa. It was founded in 1471 by Jews and Moors fleeing Spain and is comparable to Italy's Trulli Houses of Puglia and Greece's Santorini.

The performance of the tourism sector across different countries in Africa was mixed. The big winners in the past decade were Cote d’Ivoire whose numbers increased by 614% between 2010 and 2017, mainly driven by the relocation of the African Development Bank to Abidjan which draws many business travellers. Ethiopia has also seen a 99% increase in tourists over the same period thanks to the success of Ethiopian Airlines in connecting the continent to the world and the presence of regional organisations such as the African Union. Senegal has grown by 52% driven by a deliberate government strategy to market the many offerings from natural reserves to beaches and happening night scene.
North Africa draws the largest number of tourists among the sub-regions thanks to its proximity to Europe. Egypt does well because it is only a few hours flight from Europe and offers a mix of culture, history and beaches in places such as Cairo, Luxor and Sharm-el-Sheikh. This is also the case for Morocco and Tunisia. What is observed is that countries with beaches perform well. This makes Seychelles, Mauritius, Reunion and the coastal towns of Kenya and Tanzania very popular all year round.

Madagascar's Avenue of Boabab
Ongolo Top 10 recommendation: Madagascar may not be in the Top 10 list for Africa yet has so much to offer domestic, regional and international tourists. The trees that line the Avenue of the Baobabs are up to 2,800 years old. Who knew that this was the inspiration for Singapore's artificial Supertrees in the Gardens by the bay?

Some countries have noticeably underperformed. Botswana, which has some of the best wildlife in Okavango Delta and Chobe National Park, had a 18% decline in tourists between 2010 and 2017. Mozambique dropped by 16% over the same period despite the increase in popularity of beaches in the Bazaruto Archipelago.

The potential of intra-Africa tourism

Africa is far too focused on Western and Asian tourists that it has overlooked a segment of tourists with significant money to spend: fellow Africans. Tourists from across Africa are more likely to visit London than Lagos or New York instead of Nairobi because not enough marketing is done within the continent. However, there are encouraging signs of an increase in intra-Africa tourism. Wolfgang gave the example of wealthy Nigerians who travel to Kenya on private jets and stay in lavish hotel suites, outspending most Western tourists.

The Cliff of Bandiagara, Mali
Ongolo Top 10 recommendation: The Cliff of Bandiagara, in the Land of the Dogons, Mali. This UNESCO world heritage site has been in existence since the 15th century and rivals Jordan's Petra in its historical significance.

One barrier that slows down the growth of intra-Africa tourism is the visa regime which is more stringent on Africans than it is on non-Africans. Only two countries in Africa allow easy entry for fellow Africans: Seychelles, which is visa-free, and Rwanda, which is visa on arrival. Yet most African countries offer visa on arrival at a cost of $50 for Western tourists. UNWTO data shows that globally, the traditional visa is in decline and is being replaced by visa on arrival or e-visas.

Gorilla in Rwanda
Ongolo Top 10 recommendation: Rwanda has gained a reputation as a leading destination for gorilla trekking. Tourists are willing to pay over $1,000 to see silverback gorillas in the wild.

Ethiopian Airlines’ network will also facilitate this intra-Africa tourism as they serve 54 cities in Africa. Ethiopian Airlines flies to a total of 127 destinations around the world, making them the fifth largest world airline in terms of destinations served from their hub at Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa. Unlike South African Airways, Kenya Airways and EgyptAir, Ethiopian Airlines was the only African carrier to post a profit in 2020 despite the pandemic as they pivoted operations to cargo business. Ethiopian Airlines has also brought down the cost of flying in Africa which was known to have some of the most expensive flights per kilometre flown.

As most of Africa remains under lockdown, hotels and domestic airlines need a different strategy to remain afloat.

The strategy to grow domestic tourism in Africa

Domestic tourism has never been as important as it is today when hotel and tours operators are trying to stay in business. Kenya has made domestic tourism a core part of the tourism strategy unlike many countries in Africa which have failed to address affordability by marketing the same rates (or slightly discounted rates) to locals as they do to international tourists.

Lions in Masai Mara
Ongolo Top 10 recommendation: Kenya's Maasai Mara National Reserve is one of the most popular safari destinations in Africa. Every year, about 300k tourists flock to this wildlife haven to see lions, leopards, elephants, zebra, giraffes and the migrating wildebeest.

In Kenya, 55% of hotel stays are generated by Kenyans or expatriates living in Kenya who qualify for domestic rates. These local rates can be discounted by as much as 60% off the rack rates. Soon after domestic flights resumed in July, Kenya Airways and low-cost carrier Fly 540 were fully booked as residents sought to take advantage of discounted rates offered by hotels around the country. One of Malindi’s leading resorts, Driftwood Club, had an all-inclusive offer of $65 per person per night which was rare pre-pandemic.

Developing a winning tourism strategy

Benin Door of No Return
Ongolo Top 10 recommendation: The Door of No Return in Ouidah, Benin, is a memorial to the slaves who were taken from Benin to the Americas. Benin is famous for preserving slave history, voodoo as a state religion and the Dahomey kingdom who resisted French colonialism

There is no doubt that tourism has the potential to contribute to economic growth in Africa, which is blessed with some of the best nature, scenery and beaches in the world. Despite nearly every country having a tourism board, efforts to capture market share from other regions are not yielding dividends and a different strategy is required:

  • Waive all visas to African tourists travelling within Africa
  • More targeted marketing to the big spenders: Chinese ($277bn), Americans ($144bn), Germans ($94bn), Brits ($76bn) and French ($48bn)
  • Marketing campaigns are outdated and need to be refreshed to align with emerging consumer trends:
    • budget travellers: young people are keen to see the world without breaking the bank
    • people who seek travel experiences rather than just sightseeing, which is the best way to travel through Africa
    • conservation and concern for the environment which is fuelling the desire for ecotourism
    • solo travellers who do not want to pay the single person supplement
  • Tourism boards need to work together to market countries jointly. South African tour operators have been marketing Kruger National Park + Victoria Falls in Zambia/Zimbabwe + Maluti Mountains in Lesotho which has a skiing resort, as if they were in the same country. Gorilla trekking in Rwanda can be packaged with Mount Kilimanjaro, Serengeti and Zanzibar in Tanzania. Working in silos is hurting Africa, especially countries that are landlocked
Victoria Falls
Ongolo Top 10 recommendation: Victoria Falls, located on the border of Zambia & Zimbabwe, is twice the height of the Niagara Falls, and has the world's largest sheet of falling water

I believe the change will come first when Africans start to fall in love with Africa because the best marketers are the ones who truly believe in what they are selling and have a vested interest in achieving success.

© 2020 Muloongo Muchelemba. All Rights Reserved



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