Why is it so difficult to develop sustainable tourism in West and East Africa?

The Annual World Tourism Conference took place in Kigali, Rwanda, at the end of last week, drawing attention to the potential that sustainable tourism holds for development. Yet this sector is still struggling to flourish in several African countries. Addressing key factors such as infrastructure, visa policies, and security - among others - is essential for tourism to truly become an engine for economic growth and job creation on the continent. This could never be achieved without the engagement of national and local authorities, businesses and entrepreneurs.

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      The sector of tourism is experiencing its sixth year of consecutive growth. As highlighted in three of the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), tourism can promote economic growth and create job inclusion. To emphasise the potential of tourism in developing countries, the United Nations designated 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development.

      In Africa alone, in 2016, tourism contributed both directly and indirectly to 8.1% of GDP and to 7.2% of total employment on the continent. Public and private actors are working on systems that can regulate the tourism sector, leading to positive environmental, economic and socio-cultural impacts, as well as promote multi-stakeholder governance in the promotion of the tourism sector. However, Africa accounts for only a marginal share of international tourism.

      ECDPM carried out a study to identify factors affecting the development of the tourism sector in East and West Africa, focusing in particular on security.

      The potential of tourism in Africa


      Tourism, as an economic sector, shows a huge potential in Africa, a continent that still receives the lowest share of tourist arrivals in the world. Fostering tourism in Africa requires a great awareness of the trade-offs at play for sustainable development.

      In fact, despite obtaining 53.5 million tourist arrivals and USD 33.1 billion in international tourism receipts in 2015, destinations on the African continent received 4.5% of total international tourism and 2.6% of the market value generated by tourism and travel.

      Based on UNWTO data, this shows the number of tourist arrivals in the countries analysed in a recent study conducted by ECDPM for the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), in collaboration with the CRIMSON II project. The most recent dataset (2015) was selected when possible, except in cases of unavailability (Benin, Cameroun, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya: 2014; Madagascar: 2013; Ghana: no dataset).

      The tourism sector is at different stages of development on the African continent. Overall, Sub-Saharan African countries tend to occupy the bottom ranks of the tourism and travel competitiveness index, with some notable exceptions such as South Africa, Seychelles and Mauritius.

      The factors that limit the competitiveness of the sector are in general related to a combination of international openness, investment climate, the presence of critical infrastructure, natural and cultural resources, and the capacity for product development, marketing and branding. Last but not least, what is hindering tourism from thriving in Africa are safety and security.

      Security and tourism in coastal East and West Africa


      Insecurity is a global concern in the tourism sector, particularly in the wake of the violent terrorist attacks seen in recent years, which have made some traditional destinations such as Turkey, Egypt and Tunisia less attractive to visitors. Africa as a whole experienced a decline in arrivals in 2014-2015, due in part to concerns over terrorism and political instability but also to changes in visa procedures.

      For the past years, East and West Africa have been affected by security threats such as piracy and robbery at sea. Thanks to counter-piracy initiatives, by 2013 there was a significant reduction in the number of pirate attacks in the Western Indian Ocean compared to previous years. Yet attacks in the Gulf of Guinea increased over the same period, pushing African and international actors to develop joint responses.

      Between the years 2014 and 2016, Islamist terrorism affected several African countries, with attacks targeting local populations but also Western expats and tourists in Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Mali and Kenya, as well as in North Africa.

      Tourist safety in some East and West African coastal areas varies enormously on the basis of local characteristics. Security risks can result from political violence or crisis, terrorist attacks, violent crime, piracy and sea crimes.

      Hence, the need to learn from the success of other countries that have been able to address security threats in tourism areas through various interventions, including marketing and branding. Tanzania is a case in point and shows how national and local authorities, but also the private sector, have a crucial role to play to step up security and improve the image of the country as a tourism destination.

      However, addressing security cannot promote tourism for sustainable development on its own. There is a greater range of factors that need improvement for tourism to thrive, including visa policies, public health, transport infrastructure and cultural activities.

      Trade-offs of tourism for sustainable development


      Boosting tourism requires awareness of the risk of its negative externalities. It needs to build on society, culture, economic and environmental assets, in order to contribute to the achievement of some Sustainable Development Goals. That does not always happen. If the sector is not monitored and regulated, trade-offs are common.

      Foreign investors’ gains versus local communities’ benefits. A common concern is the amount of tourism revenue that is actually spent locally and benefits local private sector and authorities. This is often a problem in mass beach tourism destinations such as in Kenya, where foreign tour operators dominate, and where the local private sector is challenged by decreasing profit margins.

      Mass tourism infrastructure versus the preservation and promotion of the environment and natural heritage. The environmental footprint of coastal tourism, especially in its mass variants, can lead to habitat degradation, water pollution and strains on fisheries. Concerns about the erosion of the coastline and overbuilding are common in many countries that are seeing an expansion of tourism, such as Senegal, Cape Verde, Seychelles, Kenya.

      Tourism growth versus the valorisation of cultural heritage and cultural dialogue. The tourism industry can have positive and negative impacts on cultural heritage. The supply chain of tourism often does not give space to local businesses nor fully promotes local crafts and culture. In addition, rich history and culture are reduced and translated for tourists in a commodification process. Lastly, contacts and exchanges between tourists and local communities have often been limited to a bare minimum by the creation of separate facilities, and so-called ‘tourist bubbles’.

      Economic profit versus decent labour conditions. The tourism sector often employs seasonal, part-time and temporary workers, with little if any qualifications or training due to the seasonal nature of the businesses. Businesses, in particular small ones, can be characterised by a high level of informality. These conditions of employment put workers in a situation of precariousness, potentially causing exploitation of women and children and sex tourism.

      Unlocking the potential of tourism in Africa should not happen at the expense of local communities and only for the benefit of a few – foreign – investors.

      The views expressed in this blog reflect those of the author and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

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