The World Tourism Organization sees a bright future for Africa. Over the next dozen years, it projects that the number of tourist arrivals on the continent will jump from about 50 million to 130 million. A growing number of African countries and regional blocs are taking steps to make travel there easier to plan, safer and more streamlined. Low-cost airlines are making inroads, and in the process, they're making it simpler to travel around Africa on a tighter budget.
What stands in the way of this development? In the past, when something happened in one part of the continent, it cast a shadow on other parts as well. Take the Ebola crisis of 2014-2015 as an example. The outbreak was in West Africa, but the entire continent saw a drop in tourism.
Bouncing back from negative events
But the Ebola outbreak, as well as terror attacks in Egypt and Tunisia, proved something else: the tourism industry in Africa is more resilient now than it has been in the past. In the years following the tragic events in West and North Africa, tourism arrivals have rebounded.
When PricewaterhouseCoopers issued a report on Africa’s hotel sector earlier this year, the firm’s hospitality industry leader for Southern Africa, Pietro Calicchio, said this resiliency goes beyond recovering from the such high-profile events; the industry has also been successful at handling less-than-helpful government policies and economic troubles.
"Tourism to the African continent has proven to be resilient in the face of economic and political uncertainty, impacts of droughts and other regulatory changes," Calicchio said. "The opportunities are plenty for this industry to enjoy further growth albeit at a more modest pace."
The report singled out the continent's most populous country, Nigeria, as a place poised for growth along with Kenya, Tanzania and the island nation of Mauritius.
Safer and easier to visit
Kenya, one of the continent's most well-known tourist destinations, has seen an increase in tourists from the United States and Europe, as well as people connecting from elsewhere in Africa (thanks to cheaper and more plentiful air travel options). Security was once a major issue for the East African country, with several high-profile attacks by Somalia-based Al Shabaab causing tourist numbers to drop. Foreign offices had issued travel warnings, but the largest attacks didn't target tourists. The security situation has improved in major tourist destinations such as Mombasa and Nairobi over the past couple of years, leading to the lifting of these travel advisories by the U.S. State Department and other foreign offices.
Kenya and its neighbors are also at the forefront of a movement to make travel in this region easier by offering a single visa for Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda. Kenya is also trying to increase travel from other African countries by providing visa-on-arrival services for nationals from any country on the continent.
If you try to travel across Africa now, you may run into different visa regulations, with some countries offering a visa on arrival and others requiring a lengthy wait for visa processing through a consulate or embassy. As a result, visiting multiple countries — as a traveler might do inside the European Union — isn't always possible in Africa without careful planning and research, but Kenya and other leading destinations are working on changing that.
It's now easier and cheaper to fly between African countries, meaning tourists from North America, Europe, and elsewhere can invest in a transcontinental airfare and then move around cheaply once they arrive on the continent. This air travel change, which airlines have long lobbied for, is due to an "open skies" agreement called the Single African Air Transport Market. The agreement ends protectionist policies of national airlines in 23 countries (roughly half the continent), and it means that airfares will be as much as 25 percent lower in the future. Furthermore, low-cost carriers such as FastJet and Mango Air can expand to new markets and offer new, low cost connection possibilities.
Who's visiting Africa?
Mozambique is growing as a resort and safari destination. (Photo: Merj Chhaya/Flickr)
Another reason for optimism comes from the Far East. China, which is currently the biggest tourism spender in the world by a huge margin, is showing more interest in African destinations. Countries like Kenya are investing in promotion in Beijing and beyond, and Chinese companies are likewise investing in businesses — hospitality and otherwise — in Africa.
Africa has long had tourism success stories. The Seychelles relies heavily on tourism (for more than half its GDP) and has succeeded with exclusive resorts and private island hotels. Rwanda has spent the last two decades becoming a major destination for nature tourism, culture travel, and coffee, while Mozambique has gone from being devastated by civil war to becoming an uncrowded alternative to South Africa and a cheaper option to Botswana.
It's becoming easier for travelers to visit these different places on a single trip instead of limiting themselves to "only a safari" or "only a desert trek." Though there are still some roadblocks, such as visa regulations, the continent is now more open to tourists seeking diverse experiences.