As COVID-19 shut borders and grounded planes worldwide, much of the global tourism industry looked inward at their domestic markets.
According to cntraveler.com, some destinations, like Vietnam and New Zealand, did so swiftly, launching campaigns to lure locals into hotels and holiday areas with incentives and discounts.
But for others, the immediate shock to the tourism economy highlighted how strongly they depended on those who come in from overseas. In Africa’s tourism-reliant countries, largely in the south and east, the closure of borders meant blocking the reported $61.3 billion dollars that international visitors pump into the continent-wide GDP each year, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council—with a domestic market unprepared to step in.
“It has been a missed opportunity to not have more of a domestic market and if [governments] had focused on them earlier we would not be in the situation,” says Naledi Khabo, executive director of the African Tourism Association, a U.S.-based agency working to promote tourism to and within the continent.
Though continental tourism does exist, and spending power across Africa is growing, barriers including a lack of connectivity, marketing, and awareness have long prevented it from reaching its potential. In other words, the dots are there, but the connective tissue isn’t.
“COVID-19 has raised issues that existed but were not being addressed,” says Khabo. The virus may be an opportunity to hit the reset button where needed, as many in the Africa travel industry see a need for improving domestic tourism to survive. Here, experts weigh in on what needs to happen to really refocus on domestic travel, and the early signs of progress they’re seeing.
Shifting the narrative
Across the continent, many Africa travel experts will tell you that a cultural change is necessary to creating a robust domestic market. In South Africa, for example, generations who were forbidden by law to travel under Apartheid have been slower to adapt to free movement since the divisive policy was thrown out.
“Thirty years ago, most South Africans were not allowed to go from one place to the other”, says Sisa Ntshona, of South African Tourism (SAT). “Mobility is not engendered in the majority of the population.” The tourism board states that 70 percent of all overnight travel in the country is domestic, though the majority of that figure is the younger generation.
To solve this, SAT developed the “It Is Your Country, Enjoy It” campaign, which encourages South Africans to travel. “We had to do something to get people out there,” says Ntshona. “But the anomaly was that some of our citizens were more comfortable traveling outside of the country rather than inside of it,” he says. As part of the initiative, hotels and tour operators offered up to 40 percent discounts on stays and travel to locals.
This problem is not unique to South Africans. Many across the continent still see travel as something done overseas. “We are programmed to think that the west is the pinnacle of beauty, and that we have to go to Dubai if we want to shop,” says Mimi Aborowa, the globe trotting founder of Lagos-based travel magazine Ìrìn Journal. Historical ties to Europe have helped keep interest there and off the continent.
“The Portuguese colonies go to Portugal, the Francophones go to France, and the Anglos go to England,” says Ntshona. “We need to divert that traffic and keep it on the continent.”
Marketing has historically been geared to lure in the high-spend international traveler instead of encouraging Africans to explore their homeland, with campaigns funded by tourism boards of Morocco and Tanzania splashed across billboards in places like London or New York. “We are not the target market,” says Aborowa, “I don’t feel welcome or invited.”
Yet, it seems there is a budding generational shift. Cherae Robinson, whose experiential travel platform Tastemakers Africa began by servicing diaspora travelers returning to Africa, notes that the younger generations on the continent has a different point of view. Many have grown up with comparatively less conflict and more money than their parents and grandparents, and are increasingly interested in exploring their home countries.
In part, this is due to the scenes coming out of culture capitals like Accra and Lagos, and the rise of influencers like Unraveling Nigeria and Dakar Lives, which showcase the faces and stories of Nigeria and Senegal respectively. Robinson said her domestic business in Ghana rose from 5 percent to 20 percent by last December. “These blogs run parallel to a larger Africa Rising narrative,” says Robinson. “They provide a face for what it means to travel at home.”
For so many outside visitors, travel to and around Africa means safari. It’s a lucrative sector, pulling in around $12.9 billion each year, according to aggregate agency Safari Bookings.
At Asilia, a luxury outfitter with camps across Tanzania and Kenya, an estimated 80 percent of guests are international, “which is less than some of our competitors,” says Asilia Commercial Director Gordie Owles. On April 1 of this year, with key European and American markets in full shutdown, Asilia recorded zero guests across their 14 Tanzanian properties, and only two guests across the five in Kenya.
Many countries, including South Africa, Botswana, and Kenya, offer citizens deep discounts on park fees, and day trips to the parks are common. But barriers exist to getting those locals to stay longer. Neo-colonial undertones of the stereotypical safari can be off-putting to locals who never saw it marketed to them, and the cost can be prohibitive. “Safari needs to be decolonized and offered to all players,” says Khabo.
There are measures to start changing this: Both Kenya and Tanzania offer dynamic discounts on safari lodges, where citizens pay roughly 75 percent less than the standard rate.
But a lack of marketing, combined with the fact that most higher-end safari camps are sold by specialists to Europeans and Americans nearly a year out, make it tough for locals to even secure these rates, says Khabo. For their part, Asilia moved fast to help reach more local travelers, including by facilitating transfers to the camps from the major cities and within months were at capacity with a mostly all-local guest list. “Having a more diverse group of guests creates a more enriching experience for everyone,”adds Owles, thinking longer-term.
Removing regional barriers
In many ways, the lack of mobility and entry are the biggest impediments to attracting domestic markets. Thirty-two of Africa’s 55 nations have their own airlines; Europe has 50 carriers and 40 countries, by comparison. It’s not a shameful number, but the connectivity still isn’t enough, some say.
Robinson of Tastemakers Africa says that in Ghana, the only way to reach popular destinations like the Cape Coast is via a four-hour drive from the capital of Accra. “The inter-country flying infrastructure is not there,” she says. Khabo echoes that, saying, “I can’t get from Johannesburg to Marrakech without going via Europe.”
Lack of competition can also raise the cost of flights. “It can be cheaper to get to London from Lagos than Cairo,” says Aborowa. “So why would I stay in the continent?”
On top of this, getting entry into different countries is tough, and even visa fees can be prohibitively high. Ethiopia, for example, only offers visa-free travel to Kenyans and Djiboutians, and a visa to get into the Congo can cost close to $200. To combat this and encourage continental travel, the African Union is working on a single Africa visa that would allow free mobility across the 55 member states. It was announced in 2016 with a 2020 deadline, but is still being negotiated.
COVID-19 may expedite a lot of what’s outlined above. Governments are already shifting focus to domestic and regional markets, knowing that the international arrivals may take a while to return. Ghana, which had never prioritized tourism, even hatched a task force to encourage more Ghanians to travel when COVID-19 arrived. “Logistically, you have to start hyper-local,” says Khabo.
In Kenya, where 60 percent of tourism comes from overseas, authorities have declared that Kenyan travelers will be the focus throughout the rest of 2020, even with their borders reopening in the middle of July. (It’s not surprising considering that, within four months of lockdown, the country lost 50 percent of their annual tourism dollars, according to Betty Radier, CEO of the Kenya Tourism Board.) Incentives to get travelers out again include a tax stimulus and government campaign showing how domestic travel can have a social impact.
In South Africa, Ntshona believes the revival and restrategizing of the flagship South African Airways will pave a new way forward; in July he and his colleagues unveiled a plan for what he describes as a “leaner, meaner operation.” He says the new route plan will start local and build out, starting first in South Africa then expanding into neighbors like Botswana, Namibia, and Mozambique, with no focus for now on overseas. “It would be like our travel bubble: close proximity and short haul. That’s the focus.”
He points out that in order for domestic tourism to become successful across the continent, though, everyone else has to be involved. “It can’t be just 10 nations prioritizing travel. We need movement across the board. That will be the catalyst that gets more connectivity from airlines, rail and road.” Which is exactly what’s needed to connect the dots.