Africa’s tourism operators need local visitors

With international tourism still in a slump, African tour companies need local visitors to stimulate tourism. But many on the continent can’t afford to travel.

The Zambezi River meanders through the picturesque border region between Zambia and Zimbabwe.

About midway along its course, the Zambezi’s waters thunder 110 meters (361 feet) downward at Victoria Falls — a spectacular sight that draws tourists from around the world.

But the falls, one of the world’s seven natural wonders and the most powerful waterfall in Africa, remain largely hidden from view for those living nearby.

Most Zimbabweans and Zambians can’t afford the park entrance fees to see Victoria Falls, and many of the views of the falls along the river are in the hands of private businesses, like bars and tourist lodges.

ACCESS REMAINS A DREAM FOR LOCALS

Gift Kashimbaya lives in the Zambian town of Livingston, just minutes from the falls. She explains that one must go through some lodges to see the best part of the Zambezi from Livingstone. “And sometimes you can go to the Zimbabwe border where you can pay a certain fee,” she added.

Zambian tour operator Donald Chomba says it’s problematic that locals are often shut out of accessing public sites by private businesses and tour operators.

“That’s the reason why our local tourism will never hit the market. I wouldn’t be surprised if three-quarters of the population in Zambia have no idea what’s in Victoria Falls,” Chomba told DW.

“For lodges to start denying access to locals or make them pay just to enter the premises, I think that is wrong.”

In Zambia’s capital Lusaka, businessman Brian Sakala accuses the government of being one-sided in how it promotes tourism and prefers foreigners.

“It’s very unwise for you to give incentives to foreigners and you leave your own people,” Sakala said. “God has blessed us with all these things for all of us to enjoy.”

Supporting the domestic market in African countries is now more important than ever, according to Hermione Nevill, a tourism expert with the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a World Bank Group partner organization.

“In the past, too little was invested in domestic and regional tourism in Africa in favor of international tourists with higher expenses,” Nevill told DW.

The Covid-19 pandemic, with its travel restrictions, demonstrated just how much African countries relied on foreign tourists.

“When the pandemic hit, many destinations realised they needed their local populations to travel but really had no data or information about these markets,” Nevill said. “This makes African destinations fundamentally less resilient than competitors with established domestic travel cultures.”

According to the International Finance Corporation, tourism has become vital for African economies over the past 20 years.

In 2019, the industry accounted for about 7% of Africa’s gross domestic product and contributed $169 billion (€160 billion) to the continent’s economy. That’s about as much as the combined GDP of the Ivory Coast and Kenya.

In 2019, some 10 million international travelers visited Africa. This plummeted dramatically to 2.3 million in 2021 because of the pandemic.

This year, however, international tourism numbers across Africa are rising, said Hanneli Slabber, the head of marketing at South African Tourism.

ENCOURAGING LOCAL TOURISM

For its part, South Africa is focusing on the domestic market in order to sustainably revive the industry, a plan the country adopted in 2020.

“The pandemic resulted in more and more South Africans experiencing day trips, a number of them first-timers, people that have never considered a trip for leisure purposes,” Slabber said. “We have worked hard to make sure that people know about the different experiences, including the ones that are absolutely free.”

In February 2022, 1.1 million locals travelled within South Africa compared to 750 000 in the previous year, Slabber says.

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