The need to grow Brand Africa

Published: 22-NOV-04

It’s something of an anomaly that millions of Europeans and Americans have discovered what most Africans have yet to learn: that our continent is a tourism mecca in the raw.

Our governments and tourism authorities must take some of the blame for this heinous state of affairs. They spend 90% of their budgets attracting 10% of the tourists, while literally rubbing shoulders with a vast untapped market of travelers just waiting to discover their own countries and continents.

They allow voracious multinationals and local conglomerates to seize control of our natural assets, effectively locking the locals out of their own backyard through predatory pricing. In Senegal and Gambia, for instance, French companies dominate the tourist industry, with precious little benefit for the residents of these countries. Likewise, Mombasa is said by locals to be owned by Israel, and its tourist facilities are aimed almost exclusively at affluent overseas visitors.

It wouldn’t be so bad if this practice spawned a thriving local economy, creating jobs and investment in the process. Sadly, practically every shekel and penny spent goes back to Europe. Even the top jobs in the hotels and resorts are reserved for expatriates, with very little in the way of meaningful skills transfer. You’ll see this pattern repeated across Africa, with a few notable exceptions.

Our tourism riches, which can almost single-handedly drive Africa’s economic revival, are being pillaged from under our very noses, with the approval of the people we look to for leadership. It’s colonialism at its worst, but nobody says a word. All is not lost, though. There is currently huge interest in the potential of tourism to act as a catalyst for economic development in Africa, not least in relation to Nepad.

In terms of Nepad, there is a significant focus on how partnerships can be used to maximise the returns from tourism in African countries. Tourism forms a key part of two Nepad initiatives: the environment initiative and the market access initiative. Through Cross-border Conservation Areas, it is hoped that tourism partnerships can be promoted, with the aims of conserving the continent’s natural heritage and creating jobs.

The market access initiative gives more detailed attention to tourism, with a view to promoting interregional economic integration; developing a regional marketing strategy; and forging “co-operative partnerships to capture the benefits of shared knowledge”. The focus is on sustainable tourism at the community level, as well as adventure tourism, eco-tourism and cultural tourism.

This means we need to open our eyes to the significant benefits of intra-African trade for the continent. We need to start rolling out the red carpet for our African brothers and sisters with the same alacrity we reserve for our Western cousins. We need to examine why tourists continue to flock to Zimbabwe, in spite of its turmoil, but shun Nigeria.

We need to find genuine solutions to ending the conflict in the Great Lakes Region, which boasts some of the world’s most spectacular tourist sites, but is ravaged by war and instability. Don’t hold your breath for a speedy resolution, though. Just as in the tourist and travel industry, there are far too many vested interests and monumental egos at play here, and far too few continental bodies willing to get up and make a stand. And so the pillage continues.

What will it take for our governments to realise that if we, as a continent, are going to start attracting the kind of tourist revenues we deserve, we need to create a far greater awareness of how to grow Africa’s tourist brands?

We certainly won’t build Brand Africa through another set of glossy publications featuring the Victoria Falls, or the pristine waters of Zanzibar, or even the Pyramids of the Cheops. What needs to happen is for our governments to put tourism at the very heart of their growth policies, and then to build a meaningful structure and strategy around that.

This includes a rethink of who really spends money in our countries, and ideas of how to make it so attractive that they’ll come again and again. It also means finding ways of drawing communities into the tourism matrix, so some of the growth and investment rubs off on them in meaningful ways.

And once we’ve done all that, we need to keep working tirelessly to cherish our fledgling brands. In the long run, they will be more valuable to us than any amount of oil or diamonds.

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