Research from the World Travel & Tourism Council tells us that the global Travel and Tourism Industry in its entirety represents 9% of GDP and 1 out of 11 jobs. In 2012 there were just over 1 billion international tourist arrivals, and an estimated 5 to 6 billion domestic tourism arrivals. That’s pretty big, bigger than any other industry.
But West Africa certainly isn’t getting its fair share, at least where the leisure part of that industry is concerned. According to the UNWTO, just over 50% of international tourist arrivals were leisure travellers, on annual vacations, weekend breaks, quick stopovers, that kind of thing.
Go to cities such as Lagos, Accra, Abidjan, Bamako and Ouagadougou, and there’s hardly a vacationer in sight, it’s all about business travellers, including the Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions market (M.I.C.E.), all about oil, mining, finance, telecommunications and the other primary drivers of those economies.
So why the dearth of the leisure market? East Africa, several countries in southern Africa, and South Africa itself all have thriving leisure markets, based on their beach, safari and other products. West Africa has the products in abundance – I once read a guide book (one of the series that covers every country in the world), which claimed that the safari product in the north of the Republic of Benin was one of the best in the world. The beaches of The Gambia and Sierra Leone can rival the Caribbean, with warm seas, and Liberia has a surfing beach which that community rates quite highly.
Granted, The Gambia is a well-known winter sun destination, and the travel and tourism industry, almost entirely leisure-oriented, accounts for 20% of GDP and almost 18% of total employment – more than double the global average. Cape Verde, another winter sun spot, 44% of GDP and 39% of employment. Nigeria? 3% of GDP and 1 in 38 jobs. And that is almost entirely business-related travel.
Why the huge variation? Nigeria has beaches, Nigeria has game parks, and mountains, and festivals, and a great deal to offer to leisure travellers. So do Cameroon, Ghana and others. Why don’t countries like Nigeria or Cameroon, both brimming with “product” have more international vacationers?
Well, let’s start with visas. Hugely expensive, difficult to obtain, on-line payment systems that don’t work, unreasonable document requests (how does a vacationer get an invitation letter? Signed by the police?), all a big turn-off when you don’t need a visa to go to most southern or east African countries – you turn up, pay your entry tax, and you’re done. In West Africa, Senegal and The Gambia don’t require visas for most nationals, and attract vacationers in large numbers. Mali is also visa-free, and before the recent conflict also attracted vacationers for the historic sites, as well as adventure tourists.
Then there’s air access. The Gambia and Senegal, and the tourism hotspots of east Africa, such as Zanzibar and Kenya, have charter flights operating there, with landing fees and other airport charges which do not screw up the economics of flying in people on packages. Sure, package holiday makers aren’t the only type of tourists out there, but when you’re competing with the Mediterranean, the Canary Island and other destinations, it helps to be more welcoming to the charter airlines. Scheduled airlines charge fares that are prohibitive to the average vacationer, often because the capacity on the routes to the UK, France, Germany and other major demand generators is limited to one (foreign) airline, with no national carrier capable of servicing the route.
The last of the big three challenges, as if the former two were not enough, is the lack of promotion of the destination. Google Senegal, The Gambia and Cape Verde tourism, and what comes up on the first screen are booking channels. Do the same for Ghana, Nigeria or Cameroon, and you get lots of information, but no way to actually make a booking for flights, hotels, anything. Go into a travel agent in Europe, and there will not even be any information available on this unknown countries.
OK, so that wasn’t the last challenge, the other, in countries like Nigeria, is the lack of infrastructure to cater to leisure tourists. The whole arrival experience at airports such as Lagos and Douala is awful, then there’s the roads, the power supply, etc, etc. – they’re not ready for tourists, but they could be. Other West African countries have done it….
West Africa is not as far from Europe as Dubai, and about the same distance as southern Turkey, Cyprus and the Egyptian resorts. Countries like The Gambia and Cape Verde have had great success in the European winter sun market – as have Dubai and Egypt. Such a shame that other countries in the region aren’t doing more to make their unique tourism products more accessible to those markets, telling them about their destinations, and creating booking channels to close the deal.
Tourism creates more jobs than other industries, and that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it – jobs?
W Hospitality Group, Lagos