The gleaming Ethiopian Airlines Airbus A350 that ferried me from Addis Ababa to southern Africa in early September was about one-quarter full as we streaked past Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak, and soared over the legendary Serengeti during our four-hour flight.

The collapse of the global tourism industry gifted me an entire row of seats, leisurely attention from flight attendants, and ample social distancing from other mask-wearing passengers. With my negative Covid-19 test result tucked into a carry-on bag, I settled back for a relaxing trip 8 miles above the Great Rift Valley.

Who didn’t show up for the flight? International tourists, who typically would be flocking to wildlife lodges, festivals and Indian Ocean beaches this time of year. Instead, they’re locked down in their home countries or skittish about travel during a pandemic. And even if they might be eager for an adventure, the prospect of having to quarantine for up to two weeks after arrival in many destinations amounts to a major downer.

Yet tourism for several African countries is a rich source of dollars and euros, along with local jobs and supply contracts. International tourism arrivals in Sub-Saharan Africa tripled between 1995 and 2015, and as many as 1 in 10 African jobs are tied directly or indirectly to the industry. So if the fat wallets of Europeans, Americans and Chinese aren’t taking flight, where oh where will the demand come from to fire up the African tourism engine once more?

Uganda settled that question as it prepares to reopen to international flights in October.

“The pandemic has created an opportunity for us to look inwards and therefore travel our country,” said Uganda Tourism Board CEO Lilly Ajarova as she launched an eight-week promotional campaign, “Take on the Pearl,” in September. The title refers to Winston Churchill’s 1908 travel book description of Uganda as the “pearl of Africa” because of terrain ranging from windswept African savanna to snowy, glaciated peaks on whose thickly vegetated slopes live the world’s last remaining mountain gorillas.

Uganda is indeed a gem, full of friendly folks and lush landscapes. At Queen Elizabeth National Park along Lake Edward and the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, a park once visited by Liz herself, I saw my first wild lions in Africa several years ago – a thrilling moment. What I didn’t see were many Ugandans, apart from the guides in khaki shorts driving internationals through the bush.

Tanzania, home to Kilimanjaro, the Serengeti and the spice island Zanzibar, and Kenya, equally blessed with natural spectacles, are among the African nations turning to their own citizens for more business. More than 100 Tanzanians are visiting the Ngorongoro Conservation Area every day, “something that has never happened in the past,” Chief Marketing Officer Michael Makombe told the Citizen newspaper. Reduced park entry fees and a government campaign are driving the higher visits to the vast volcanic crater that teems with classic wildlife.

Uganda’s permanent secretary at the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities, Doreen Katusiime, said the domestic campaign would help Ugandans discover what their country has to offer. A companion social media competition linked to choice Ugandan destinations is intended to draw in friends and family.

To amp up the travel vibe, Uganda has named local music star Eddy Kenzo as its tourism ambassador. Kenzo’s 1 million Instagram followers should provide an ample launch pad for the tourism push.

Of course Ugandans living in villages near parks and wildlife reserves already are familiar with the ecological riches, which may even wander into their communities. Yet as African nations rapidly urbanize (see: the impenetrable Kampala “jam” at rush hour) young people increasingly are cut off from these habitats.

Rwenzori “Mountains of the Moon” in western Uganda

Middle-class Africans with cash to spend are venturing out to soak up areas of natural beauty. Kenyans and South Africans are active hikers, campers and beach-goers with well organized trails and backcountry areas to enjoy. Trekking companies such as Nairobi-based Hikemaniak help young Kenyans get out into top nature spots (cover image).

Yet some tourism operators aren’t always welcoming to the locals, perceiving them as second-class customers compared with lucrative foreigners. A marketing outreach to Kenyans by a popular lodge for foreign tourists drew scorn from Kenyans who wondered why it took a pandemic to get attention, the New York Times recently reported.

The pursuit of in-country travelers may take on more importance as the international market struggles to re-ignite. The airline industry is frustrated by the pace of the rebound even though governments agreed in June to global protocols for safely re-starting aviation.

“Many countries have implemented the guidelines, which is good,” says Alexandre de Juniac, CEO of the International Air Transport Association, a global industry group. “But this produces little result because there is no coordination to manage the reopening of borders. Quarantine measures, in particular, are keeping aviation, travel and tourism effectively in lockdown.”

Thirty-five countries in Africa and the Middle East have quarantine measures in place, an increase of seven countries since August. The IATA says African governments should rely on testing instead of quarantines to encourage people to start flying again.

Africa passenger traffic in July was 94 percent below the 2019 level though August saw a rebound begin as important destinations such as Kenya opened their air borders.

In late September the Madrid-based United Nations World Tourism Organization partnered with Google for an online  “Acceleration Program” focused on data signals about the recovery of tourism demand in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa. The forum looked at Google search data in each country that points to rising interest in travel.

The partnership will help the UN tourism agency “to strengthen Africa’s data and digital skills” to help tourism ministries and marketing groups understand “barriers and drivers” for destination visits. The UNWTO’s new Tourism Recovery Tracker collects indicators including hotel occupancy rates and airline seat capacity to gauge the comeback.

Countries around the world are dangling incentives to encourage their citizens to check out local destinations, ranging from cash bonuses (Italy) and hotel subsidies (Thailand) to moving holidays to Mondays to create long weekends (Costa Rica), according to a UNWTO study.

“With travellers considering destinations closer to home in the early stages of travel normalization and with still important travel restrictions in place for international travel as a consequence of Covid-19, countries with higher shares of domestic tourism are likely to recover earlier and faster,” the study found.

By 2020, consumer spending on tourism, hospitality, and recreation in Africa was projected to reach about $262 billion, according to a pre-Covid study by the Africa Growth Initiative at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Africa represents a staggering opportunity given the size of the continent and its bounty of wildlife, landscapes and cultures.

Yet in 2016 Africa accounted for only about 5 percent of the world’s inbound tourism arrivals, With the likely curtailment of international business travel due to the now proven viability and efficiency of online meetings, even that modest share may shrink.

An Urban hotel rises in Lusaka

One bright spot may be domestic business. “Something that seems unique to Africa is that local conferences drive a big portion of room sales,” says Christopher Jannou, founder and managing director of the Urban Hotel Group. The value brand touts a “decisively hip” experience with “business functionality” and aspires to open Urban hotels across Africa.

As an economic driver among top African markets, tourism is most important to Ethiopia – accounting for 36 percent of exports, according to analysis of 2016 data by Brookings. The rock-cut churches of Lalibela and stunning mountains of northern Ethiopia are among the draws. Kenya, South Africa, Uganda, Tanzania and Mauritius also rely on tourism for a significant chunk of their economies. Or did, until the coronavirus became the world’s most unwelcome guest.

Now it’s up to the locals to spark a comeback. “There is potential for keen investors to capitalize on this trend by creating low-cost tourism services that cater to the African market, especially for those who travel repeatedly for business or to visit family,” the Brookings researchers predicted in December 2018.

Seen from the vantage point of the world in 2020, that is strikingly prescient advice.

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