Despite setbacks, Africa’s tourism industry is an increasing driver of economic development across the continent.

The Kenya Association of Hotelkeepers and Caterers in June said that dozens of hotels were shutting down along the country’s world-famous coast, following a recent spate of terrorist attacks and the subsequent drop in visitor numbers. In the meantime, the Ebola epidemic is making itself felt even outside of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the countries most directly affected. In August, for example, local media reported that Ghana’s government had suspended all international conferences for three months to try to stop the virus from spreading.

But although the present circumstances are undeniably adverse, Africa’s vibrant tourism industry continues to drive economic growth. The sector also has a vastly untapped potential and, with the right investment, is likely to become an even greater force for development. “Tourism has grown to become one of the most important sectors for Africa’s economies and a recognized tool to promote development in the continent,” says Taleb Rifai, secretary-general of the World Tourism Organization, an agency of the United Nations (UNWTO).

According to the latest UNWTO figures, Africa welcomed more than 56 million international tourists in 2013, up 5% from 2012 and almost three times the norm just a decade ago. The UNWTO forecasts 4% to 6% growth this year and predicts that the continent will receive 134 million people in 2030.

With an average growth rate of 5% a year, Africa is well ahead of the rest of the world, where tourism is expected to expand at a 3% annual pace for the foreseeable future. This naturally translates into big bucks. The UNWTO calculates that Africa´s total export earnings from tourism reached $34 billion in 2013, comprising 7% of total exports and 57% of service exports in the region. “Tourism means wealth, a stronger balance of payments, investment and jobs, especially for youth and women,” says Rifai.


What’s more, tourism is expanding outside of well-known spots like Morocco and South Africa and is engaging an increasingly diverse range of visitors. Brian Mullis, CEO of Sustainable Travel International, a nonprofit organization, reports strong growth in diverse countries outside of the usual suspects such as Namibia, Mozambique, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Ethiopia. “Even in traditional destinations, there is a focus on new regions and on the diversification of products beyond traditional safari holidays, appealing to the active luxury and adventure markets.” Mullis adds that business and corporate travel is a big growth area, as is wellness tourism—in other words, travel which is undertaken to promote health and wellbeing.

Tourism is uniquely “cross-cutting.” Its growth, that is to say, depends on and benefits a wide array of sectors—not only those directly linked to hospitality, like accommodation and food and beverage, but also others like agriculture, aviation, construction, finance, software and transportation. “In Nigeria, for example, economic growth has led to infrastructure development,” says Nikki Forster, a partner and director for hospitality and gaming at PwC in South Africa. Business magazine Ventures Africa reported at the end of last year that Lagos-based Access Bank had pledged nearly $20 million to support the development of the country’s tourism industry, which could potentially generate $4 billion a year.


Tourism is also proving to be a powerful magnet for multinational corporations. In April, Marriott International acquired the South African hotel chain Protea, which owned 116 properties across seven countries. The company subsequently announced plans to expand further in Africa by adding another 40 hotels in 13 countries by 2020. Meanwhile the China International Fund, a Hong Kongbased investment group, is building the new international airport in Luanda, capital of Angola.

According to a recent study by the World Bank, data from the World Travel & Tourism Council reveal that South Africa attracted $6.1 billion in tourism-related foreign direct investment in 2011, by far the continent’s best performance. Kenya took in $404 million, Ghana $270 million, and Uganda $165 million.

This is not to underestimate today’s challenging circumstances or Africa’s many structural deficiencies. “Given the Ebola outbreaks in West Africa, this area is now largely a ‘no go’ today in terms of tourism,” says Forster. “Kenya is suffering as a result of terrorist activities.” Forster adds that although Nigeria is also feeling the impact, the country is largely a business destination. The current situation has therefore had less impact on travel there than in countries where the majority of visitors are going abroad for leisure and can choose to go to other destinations.

Additionally, many parts of the continent remain largely inaccessible and lack the kind of infrastructure and services needed to attract visitors, from insufficient air connectivity to inadequate visa arrangements.

However, these shortfalls mean that there is still plenty of low-hanging fruit in terms of business and investment opportunities. According to UNWTO, Africa comprises only 5% of the world’s international tourist arrivals and 3% of all international tourism receipts. If the right strategies are implemented, there is no way to go but up.

“Countries where we see tourism growing have recognized that this is an industry that requires strong collaboration between the government and the private sector,” says Eddie Bergman, executive director of the Africa Travel Association, a New York–based trade association. “Recently, a single visa was set up for East Africa, to visit Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda, and I think that’s very encouraging and that we will see these initiatives spreading over the next ten years.”

According to Slaheddine Saidi, a statistician at the African Development Bank, Air Mauritius offers another template for how the tourism industry can be fostered. “Some countries in Africa do not have the adequate infrastructure, and governments should therefore encourage private investment by offering advantageous fiscal and legal treatment,” Saidi says, adding that Air Mauritius is equipped with the most-modern, most-efficient aircraft—helping it to become one of the leading carriers in the region. The airline has been listed on the Stock Exchange of Mauritius since February 1995, though the government retains a controlling interest.

There also appears to be growing awareness among stakeholders in companies invested in the sector that tourism needs to be developed in a sustainable way, so that it can generate financial and social windfalls for the long run. “Poorly managed tourism degrades the environment, destroys cultures and alters landscapes,” says Sustainable Travel International’s CEO Mullis. “Today some of the world’s biggest companies are convening to help solve these major issues because they understand that their products are very much at risk.”

Despite the recent setbacks, there is little doubt that the tourism industry is getting more and more recognition as a key engine of economic development across Africa. “Considering that an increasing number of governments in the region have identified tourism as a central pillar of their national strategy,” concludes UNWTO secretary general Rifai, “we trust that many of these key issues will be a priority and that tourism in Africa will continue to progress strongly.”