Africa: Africa’s Tourism Operators Need Local Visitors

With international tourism still in a slump, African tour companies need local visitors to stimulate tourism. But many on the continent can’t afford to travel.

The Zambezi River meanders through the picturesque border region between Zambia and Zimbabwe.

About midway along its course, the Zambezi’s waters thunder 110 meters (361 feet) downward at Victoria Falls — a spectacular sight that draws tourists from around the world.

But the falls, one of the world’s seven natural wonders and the most powerful waterfall in Africa, remain largely hidden from view for those living nearby.

Most Zimbabweans and Zambians can’t afford the park entrance fees to see Victoria Falls, and many of the views of the falls along the river are in the hands of private businesses, like bars and tourist lodges.

Access remains a dream for locals

Gift Kashimbaya lives in the Zambian town of Livingston, just minutes from the falls. She explains that one must go through some lodges to see the best part of the Zambezi from Livingstone. “And sometimes you can go to the Zimbabwe border where you can pay a certain fee,” she added.

Zambian tour operator Donald Chomba says it’s problematic that locals are often shut out of accessing public sites by private businesses and tour operators.

“That’s the reason why our local tourism will never hit the market. I wouldn’t be surprised if three-quarters of the population in Zambia have no idea what’s in Victoria Falls,” Chomba told DW.

“For lodges to start denying access to locals or make them pay just to enter the premises, I think that is wrong.”

Foreign tourists preferred

In Zambia’s capital Lusaka, businessman Brian Sakala accuses the government of being one-sided in how it promotes tourism and prefers foreigners.

“It’s very unwise for you to give incentives to foreigners and you leave your own people,” Sakala said. “God has blessed us with all these things for all of us to enjoy.”

Encouraging local tourism

Supporting the domestic market in African countries is now more important than ever, according to Hermione Nevill, a tourism expert with the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a World Bank Group partner organization.

“In the past, too little was invested in domestic and regional tourism in Africa in favor of international tourists with higher expenses,” Nevill told DW.

The COVID-19 pandemic, with its travel restrictions, demonstrated just how much African countries relied on foreign tourists.

“When the pandemic hit, many destinations realized they needed their local populations to travel but really had no data or information about these markets,” Nevill said. “This makes African destinations fundamentally less resilient than competitors with established domestic travel cultures.”

Creating incentives for local visitors

According to the International Finance Corporation, tourism has become vital for African economies over the past 20 years.

In 2019, the industry accounted for about 7% of Africa’s gross domestic product and contributed $169 billion (€160 billion) to the continent’s economy. That’s about as much as the combined GDP of the Ivory Coast and Kenya.

In 2019, some 10 million international travelers visited Africa. This plummeted dramatically to 2.3 million in 2021 because of the pandemic.

This year, however, international tourism numbers across Africa are rising, said Hanneli Slabber, the head of marketing at South African Tourism.

For its part, South Africa is focusing on the domestic market in order to sustainably revive the industry, a plan the country adopted in 2020.

“The pandemic resulted in more and more South Africans experiencing day trips, a number of them first-timers, people that have never considered a trip for leisure purposes,” Slabber said. “We have worked hard to make sure that people know about the different experiences, including the ones that are absolutely free.”

In February 2022, 1.1 million locals traveled within South Africa compared to 750,000 in the previous year, Slabber says.

‘Khaki safari’ makes way for the ‘Afrofuturist’

Tourism expert Nevill emphasizes that growing domestic travel in Africa is quite complicated.

In Africa, the local travel culture is very small to start with, Nevill said, and this makes the domestic tourism sector more vulnerable to things like a weak economy or rising costs of living.

South Africa was one of the first countries in the region to have a national domestic tourism strategy.

One example of this strategy is the travel campaign “Sho’t left,” meaning “around the corner” in local vernacular, which encourages locals to be tourists within South Africa.

During its annual sale week, the tourism office offers domestic travel deals and packages, where prices are slashed by up to 50%.

During other events such as South Africa’s Heritage Month, locals are offered free entry to many museums and gardens.

Nevill says investments are increasingly being made in new hotels offering a nature tourism experience that is different from the traditional safaris, in which Western tourists kitted out in the safari outfits of colonial times are driven through a game park.

Another emerging market for a newer travel class, according to Nevill, is that of the younger and digitally savvy “Afrofuturist” tourists, who are already used to international travel.

Concepts for local markets

The domestic tourism markets of most African nations are smaller than South Africa’s, with Kenya and Nigeria being two exceptions.

Still, during the pandemic, many countries on the continent tried to promote domestic and regional travel by offering discounted fares aimed at local tourists, Nevill said.

Rwanda, for example, is consulting with the IFC on a strategy for the development of local and regional markets but already offers staggered price categories for domestic and domestic visitors.

And back in Zambia, DW asked various privately owned lodges why local needed to pay to enter, but has received no response as of the time of publication.

National tourism authority staff made it clear in several off-record conversations that the issue was important, but DW was unable to get an official statement whether authority had any plans to improve the situation.

This article was originally written in German. It was adapted by Benita van Eyssen.