Posted by: Home Strange Home | February 8, 2010

Tourism in Africa

After attending the Destinations Travel Show in London Earl’s Court today, and being pleasantly surprised to see an exhibition presence from African countries as diverse as Namibia, Swaziland, Cape Verde, Malawi, and Tanzania, I started to think more about the tourism industry in Africa and the role tourism does (or can) play in African development.  

After doing looking at data from the UN World Tourism Organisation, I learned that Africa received 44 million international travelers in 2007.  It sounds like a lot, until you realize international tourist arrivals to France alone tallied at 80 million in 2008 (France is by far the most visited country in the world).  Within Africa, the most visited destinations are Egypt (8.6 million visitors in 2008), South Africa (8.4 million), Morocco (7.5 million), and Tunisia (6.5 million).   But all of them are pretty far down the global ranking of most visited countries, coming in at 24th, 25th, 30th, and 33rd, respectively.

Taking South Africa as an example, tourism has grown from 4.6% of GDP in 1993 to 8.3% of GDP today.  The tourism industry now earns more foreign exchange than gold exports and employs 947,000 people.  Moreover, in 2006, South Africa tourism grew 14%, more than three times the global tourism growth rate.  For Africa as a whole, tourism is growing about 7-8% per year. 

Whether tourism is good or bad for local development is a contentious debate.  There are a number of economic arguments in favor of tourism development.  First and foremost, tourism is a labour-intensive sector and there is a clear link between increased tourist arrivals and new jobs created.  However, what jobs are created are likely to be marginal, low skill, low wage employment.  

Secondly, the tourism sector can also be an important source of foreign exchange earnings, generating the money needed to import food and industrial inputs.  But, it is debatable how much money ends up in the local economy – with many package holidays or overland trips booked in Europe and the US, most of the revenue goes to Western tour operators rather than local businesses.  

Thirdly, in some cases  the presence of large numbers of tourists can encourage infrastructure development, although the location of such development and whether it serves local needs is a different question.  Finally, some argue that tourism can provide an incentive to protect the environment, especially in eastern and southern Africa where many tourists go for the purpose of viewing the wildlife and nature on safaris and in national parks.  However, game drives, SUVs, long-haul flights, and overdeveloped resorts are probably more likely to contribute to environmental destruction rather than preservation and regeneration. 

Not to mention, a constant influx of tourists into rural village areas, coming to witness indigenous peoples as “performers” to be photographed, can arguably lead to cultural erosion.  While tourism can be an important part of a country’s development strategy, it is hardly a panacea.   

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