Last week, the 41st Annual World Tourism Conference was held in Kigali, Rwanda.
There was a lot of good news at the conference.
We heard that international tourist arrivals to Africa continue to increase, with 18.55 million people visiting the continent this year, up from 16.351 million in 2012. Intra-African tourism is projected to grow by 55 per cent over the next 10 years.
There was palpable excitement about intra-African tourists as many people are of the view that Africans travelling around the continent is the next big thing.
The optimism is well founded. According to the 2017 Economic Survey by the Kenya Bureau of Statistics, game lodge occupancy by East Africans dominate the growth sector, doubling in the 2014-2015 period, which cushioned the decline in foreign visitors.
At a broader level, African tourists accounted for 61.2 per cent of the total occupancy in hotels, lodges and other accommodations in Kenya between 2012 and 2016. That is quite impressive.
Data from the Kenya Bureau of Statistics showed that visitors to national parks and game reserves rose by 17.0 per cent, the highest in 2016.
The next highest increase came from visits to museums, snake parks and historical sites, which posted a 15.7 per cent increase.
On the contribution of tourism to national economies, the sector contributed 14 per cent of Tanzania’s gross domestic product in 2014, and by 2025 — despite the vast increases in national wealth that will come from gas, massive infrastructure, and other investments —the sector is projected to contribute 13.2 per cent of GDP.
When it comes to employment, a study in Zambia by the Natural Resources Consultative Forum found that a $250,000 investment in the tourism sector generates 182 full-time formal jobs. This is nearly 40 per cent more than the same investment in agriculture and over 50 per cent more when investing in mining.
Despite these scenarios, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame cautioned against complacency. While Rwanda made $400 million from tourism in past financial year, he said it was a small amount considering the potential of the industry.
And he is right.
A lot more value can be extracted from tourism in Africa, but it requires us to appreciate that tourism is only the final product. If there isn’t a renewed commitment to conservation, tourism will suffer. The tourism sector has to do more than just milk the cow. It needs to feed the cow too.
In addition to creating jobs and contributing to national economies, the tourism industry has done relatively well in areas like community involvement, but has not made the same contribution in directly supporting conservation efforts, which affect their main business and the Africa brand.
When it comes to their engagement on national policies on the environment, the tourism sector is hardly visible. This is despite the decisions having a direct effect on their business.
Given the contribution of the tourism industry to national economies, they deserve a place on the table even more than sectors like oil and mining.
There is also a need for them to do more to support innovation. Rwanda, which holds its annual Kwita Izina (gorilla naming ceremony) on September 1, has built one of the biggest, most star-studded, and fashionable conservation events in Africa based on the need to protect mountain gorillas.
Elephants, hippos, giraffes, lions, and other popular wildlife attractions need similar initiatives to protect their numbers. Not only does such an event drive tourism, but it also helps conservation efforts by making wildlife part of our social experience.
The increasing number of Africans travelling as tourists on the continent is a great milestone.
A Kenya tourism survey shows there is growing interest in camping among East Africans. Most of these tourists are young East Africans, who have a growing interest in regional travel. Comfortable railway travel, like Kenya’s new standard gauge railway offers an opportunity for growth. There is therefore a need for speedy rollout of the SGR into Uganda and Rwanda.
A balance can be found that allows conservation to thrive even as development takes place. There is a need to protect wild lands and expand them too.
The process for this needs to be scientific because deciding which areas to protect should be decided by the best environmental scientists and not politicians seeking to win elections.
The tourism industry can contribute intellectual capital and insight to this initiative.
Kaddu Sebunya is the president of African Wildlife Foundation. [email protected]