Two tourism and travel exhibitions recently staged in South Africa extended their focus to put neighbouring African countries in the spotlight.
The Indaba and the We Are Africa events both acknowledged that all countries and industry professionals can benefit by promoting the region as a whole.
But how good are the attractions and facilities north of our borders, and what initiatives are those countries taking to promote themselves?
The attractions are certainly there, and in many cases, the infrastructure needed to cater for international tourists and business conferences and events are also appearing.
Travel trade fairs were held in both Zambia and Zimbabwe in April, yet unhelpfully they actually clashed with each other.
The 7th Zambia International Travel Expo (ZITE) in Lusaka billed itself as the country’s only tourism marketing event that brings together the best of local and regional tourism products and services, whilst attracting international visitors and buyers.
The focus this year was on boosting domestic and regional tourism rather than aiming internationally. “Creating travel itineraries that extend between neighbouring countries will give the traveller and tourist more choice and will increase tourist arrivals. Zambia is well positioned to be the hub for the region,” said organiser Chimwemwe Nyirenda.
Despite those regional ambitions, Zimbabwe’s A’Sambeni exhibition designed to attract regional visitors happened on the same dates. A’Sambeni highlighted adventure, cultural and eco-tourism and encouraged tourists and business people to see multiple countries on one visit.
Although buyers could have theoretically attended both shows, the timing prevented exhibitors participating in both, undermining the lip-service paid to regional cooperation.
One move that shows how cooperating can benefit all players came with the creation of a single East Africa Tourist Visa in January. The $100 visa applies to Kenya,Rwanda and Uganda, with the issuing country keeping $40 and the others receiving $30. It is valid for 90 days and can be bought on entering any of the countries.
Stephen Asiimwe, CEO of Uganda Tourism Board, said global trends showed that travellers want a more holistic travel experience. “The single tourist visa is a sign of continued efforts and cooperation among the respective tourism boards and will continue to grow as we launch the joint marketing platform,” he said.
Yet one thing hampering East Africa is less obvious than any lack of infrastructure – it’s the airfares. Airfares between neighbouring countries or from the rest of the world are unacceptably high, if they’re available at all. A return flight from Antananarivo in Mozambique to Lusaka in Zambia, for example, costs from $2,128 and flies you via Johannesburg. As a result, many Africans only fly if their company is paying, and few companies are prepared to pay that much, even to attend a useful conference.
“Even without price drops, more flights and more routes are clearly needed,” says Lee Crawfurd, a development economist writing for the African Development Bank. “International tourism earned Africa $43.6-billion in 2012, and directly created eight million jobs. This could grow with increased and cheaper air transport.”
Africa has less than 1% of global flights despite having 12% of the world’s population. Problems include state protection of national carriers, the resulting lack of competition, high taxes imposed by governments who still see flights as a luxury, and poor safety records.
Although some East African countries can benefit from a unified approach to tourism, others, like Mauritius and Madagascar, are stand-alone destinations because of their location.
Mauritius has almost perfected its tourism industry, with exceptional hotels, good conference facilities and enough natural attractions to keep visitors happy. Its biggest drawback is the cost, with high airfares and hotel prices making it expensive compared to other destinations. It’s certainly more geared towards Europeans than Africans.
Tanzania saw tourism become its greatest earner of foreign exchange last year, overtaking the gold industry. To capitalise on that the government has ambitious plans to improve its airline, roads and railways infrastructure and to boost business tourism by increasing the number of hotels with world-class conference facilities.
Tanzania’s safari experiences are magnificent, with the Serengeti home to the spectacular wildebeest migration. Adventurers can climb Mount Kilamanjaro, while beach bums head for Zanzibar, the island off the coast. For business meetings, Dar es Salaam is the undisputed capital, with its modern conference centre and trade fair grounds hosting a growing number of pan-Africa events.
Madgascar’s tourism industry is still in its infancy, with poor transport, expensive airfares and a lack of training and facilities that make it a quite rustic. Yet the abundance of wildlife means the island has much to offer, if the newly-elected government can support the private sector in harnessing the natural resources without over-exploiting them.
Botswana is well known for Chobe and the Okavango Delta, with mokoro boats giving an exciting twist to the traditional safari. It also boasts the Tsodilo Hills, a World Heritage Site rich with 4,500 rock paintings. For the adventurous, the Toyota Kalahari Botswana 1000 Desert Race is a gruelling four-day race for 4x4s, quads and motorbikes.
Several tour operators offer trips combining various East African countries. One popular package is a cruise on the Chobe followed by a hop to Zimbabwe’s stunning Victoria Falls.
Wildlife company Wilderness Safaris hopes to open a camp in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park this year. An existing camp, Ruckomechi Camp, has a new sleep-out option where guests sleep on a deck by the Zambezi flood plain, which attracts elephant, buffalo, lion and wild dogs.
In Namibia, Wilderness Safaris is opening the Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp in a region of stark mountains, vast plains and dry riverbeds. Desert-adapted elephants inhabit the area, along with lion and black rhino.
Mozambique’s greatest attractions are its diving sites, littered with 17th century Portuguese shipwrecks. Culturally it boasts the Ilha de Mozambique World Heritage Site, the former capital with colonial buildings including San Sebastiao Fort dating from 1558 AD.
In Zambia, Livingstone is the tourism centre thanks to the thundering Victoria Falls. Zambia also boasts South Luangwa National Park, while Kasaba Bay by Lake Tanganika is being developed as a holiday resort.