For many countries around the world, tourism has now become their most important economic activity. It not only brings in substantial revenue, it underwrites the development of infrastructure, creates jobs, transfers skills and establishes invaluable friendly relations between nations and individuals.
Tourism represents a staggering 40% of all exports of services and revenues from this sector have grown far stronger than those from other forms of international trade.
International tourist arrivals, worldwide, have grown from 25m in 1950 to a mind-boggling 808m in 2005. Tourism receipts reached $682bn, rising to $800bn when airline tickets are included. This volume of trade equals or exceeds that of oil exports, food products and even cars. The revenues generated by tourism have grown at an average of 11.2% a year since the 1950s, easily outpacing the general world economic growth.
This ever upward growth of tourism has come despite fears of international terrorism, wars, natural disasters such as tsunamis and earthquakes. Industry experts expect the growth to continue at around 5% for the foreseeable future.
Africa, too, has done well. Between 2000 and 2005, international tourist arrivals to Africa increased from 28m to 40m. This represents a growth of 5.6% a year, beating the world average of 3.1% a year. Over the same period, Africa’s international tourism receipts more than doubled from $10.bn to $21.3bn putting it in the top growth league in the industry.
This is very serious money in anybody’s language. When you consider that the vast bulk of tourist arrivals to Africa land in just a handful of African countries, the economic impact of tourism on national economies becomes critical.
It also means that the continent of Africa, unlike most of the other tourist destinations, is still largely unexplored territory. The potential for Africa as a whole therefore is immense.
It was with this potential in mind that the first Tourism Africa conference was held, under the auspices of the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), in Geneva in September.
African Business was a media partner in the event and we attended the conference and exhibition at the giant Palexpo facility near the airport in Geneva in high expectation.
Unfortunately this first event was a bit of a damp squib. Participation from Africa was very patchy. The big guns in African tourism - South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Morocco, Tunisia and Mauritius were not strongly represented. Perhaps they did not feel the need to market their products at this venue. Nevertheless, the small South African delegation made noises commensurate with the size and importance of their country and pointed out that the 2010 World Cup would represent a rare bonanza for tourism developers.
One of the reasons given for the no-show of various groups was the difficulty many African nationals faced in obtaining visas to visit Switzerland.
It was a pity that the African attendance was so below par. There were several major industry players, investors, hoteliers, airline representatives, developers, financiers, hospitality experts and others with whom to exchange ideas and make deals. It was an opportunity that went begging.
The exhibition attached to the conference was likewise patchy. Again one would imagine, visa problems coupled with the high cost of transporting exhibits and personnel might have been the culprit.
But for those African delegations that did attend, there were rich pickings. It was very encouraging to see the ‘smaller’ tourism nations making a strong bid to hitch their wagons to the caravan. Libya and Ethiopia had probably the most interesting stands and it was good to see delegations from Mali, Lesotho, Cameroon, Guinea, Mauritania, Benin, Sudan, Angola and Mozambique.
This was a great opportunity for Libya to ‘come out of the cold’ in terms of international business. The Libyan stand was very well appointed and attended. That country’s tourism sector is still in its infancy but it has a wealth of cultural and natural attractions. A large and very modern marina complex is in construction in Tripoli and development projects, undertaken by British, Norwegian, Malaysian, Italian, Spanish and Panamanian companies are up and running.
Many of the African delegates I spoke to were optimistic about the future of tourism in their countries but quite clearly, most of them are still very new to the game and will need expert guidance. Fortunately, from what we saw at the conference, that guidance is available from international players who see the development of the African market as the new frontier.
Global tourism is set to grow (the Chinese are poised to send ‘armies’ of visitors all over the world) and Africa, for once, is in the right place at the right time to take advantage.