Why African Tourism Matters
Hint: The reason is not what you are expecting.
By Daniella Sachs
After reading the title of this piece, I have no doubt that your mind is already filled with images of sun-drenched savannahs sparkling with dust clouds kicked up by the hooves of galloping wildebeest as they zig and zag to avoid the clutches of a lion. Or is it the mysterious tablecloth of clouds that flows over the majestic guardian of Cape Town that you thought of? Or perhaps you dreamt of the iridescent rainbows thrown up by the thundering might of Victoria Falls that glimmer and play in delight.
Who could blame you for immediately thinking about the host of exotic wonders and charismatic species that Africa offers up on a platter? However, this is not the ‘African Tourism’ I am talking about. In fact, I will go so far as to say that the attachment to this image of ‘African Tourism’ is why Covid has had such a devastating impact on tourism across the continent.
How can I possibly say that?
Last year, I was tasked by the African Union with mapping and profiling tourism throughout the continent. What struck me from this deep dive into Africa’s wonders and possibilities was how singly fixated the industry is on packaging the continent into easily digestible cookie-cutter titbits for overseas tourists. This predominantly western tourist is the chosen dinner guest that everyone plays exclusive attention to and clamours to attract. While the African tourist — the market that should matter most — is habitually ignored like an unwanted guest.
When you look at the numbers, it makes little sense. Predictions are that by 2030, Africa will be home to 1.7 billion of the world’s 8.5 billion people. What do those numbers mean? It means that within the next 9 years, 1 in 5 consumers in the world will be African. Yes, I hear you argue that this is hardly a page-turner because you, like most of the tourism industry, think this market can barely afford the basics, let alone a luxury like travel. But this is where you are mistaken. For if you take a closer look at the numbers, you will see why this untold story is more of a page-turner than you think.
The African tourism market is going to be driven by an increasingly affluent middle and upper class of over 582 million and 116 million respectively. By 2030, it is predicted that this young, mobile market will be spending USD260 billion on hospitality and recreation. Let me put that into perspective for you: in 2019 (pre-Covid), the tourism industry focused all of their energy on attracting 67 million overseas tourists who only spent USD38 billion, when a much larger and more valuable market sits right on their doorstep.
My entrepreneurial brain struggles to understand the logic. How is it that the industry has been so blind to the potential that they have right in front of them? Even now, battered and struggling to survive, all they can dream of is the return of their beloved overseas tourists. They still think of African tourists as an inferior stopgap who can only be enticed with huge discounts. Why?
We speak so much about the deep need to decolonise the African narrative, and unfortunately this holds true for African tourism too.
These blinkers need to be removed because they are sabotaging the success of tourism businesses across the continent, which cannot see the potential that lies on their very doorstep.
All this unnecessary entrepreneurial suffering is what sparked us to launch a new travel-startup: Know Your Tourist. Our mission is to help these businesses (especially the small ones) unlock the opportunities that they have to grow their impact.
We know that rewriting the African narrative is a hard task to take on, but we believe that it is an imperative, for we can only change the face of African tourism if we remove the blinkers that are preventing entrepreneurs from thriving. We need to do this because African tourists do not just matter; they are the future of tourism, and they are one of the most underserved markets globally. The opportunity is now, and the opportunity is African.
Daniella Sachs is a multidisciplinary tourism innovation expert, disruptor, Africanist and thought leader who publishes regularly on why we need to change the way we think about tourism. She is the co-founder of Know Your Tourist, a travel and tourism design and innovation house that collaborates with visionary business builders to bring bold new travel and tourism ideas to life.
Some of the many thought-provoking topics she has written on include: