African tourism has become so much of a rollercoaster for two reasons alone: hysteria in the international press and local governments not playing their part, says Graham Boynton
I am writing this column from Zimbabwe, a country that, if we are to believe the various PR ‘hypesters’, is enjoying a massive tourism boom and, in reality, is probably experiencing healthy growth in this sector. My last safari was in Kenya’s Masai Mara about nine months ago, when I witnessed the collapse of the market in the wake of Al-Shabaab terror attacks and the wholly inappropriate fear that Ebola was sweeping the African continent. Five years ago the reverse was true, with Kenya on a high and Zimbabwe all but empty.
So one boom, one bust – and yet essentially nothing has changed in either of these countries. In Zimbabwe, the government continues to mismanage this once-prosperous country and suppress any opposition, while in Kenya the Masai Mara remains, as I have said before, safer than Hampstead Heath on a Saturday afternoon.
Somewhere along the way the perceptions of international tourists have changed, and this has shifted buying patterns. Nowhere else in world tourism do such massive swings take place. Currency fluctuations, changes in national economic circumstances, visa restrictions and taxation all produce small shifts in leisure travel patterns to Europe, the US, Latin America and the Far East, though the general long-term trend inevitably seems to be upward. With Africa, it appears to be all or nothing.
All of which has made me think that to sustain meaningful tourism development the various African destinations – and we should all know by now that you cannot and should not refer to Africa as a single entity – need to establish a more coherent and consistent message to the
outside world about their virtues. And these virtues are many, as I am experiencing in Zimbabwe at the moment.
Unfortunately, many African countries are not being helped by their governments, who seem intent on torpedoing their international tourism businesses. The Zimbabwean government has just introduced a 15 per cent tax on visitor accommodation, despite the protestations of the Tourism Minister Walter Mzembi, while South Africa recently introduced controversial new immigration rules governing adults travelling with children. In both cases, industry leaders have been quick to warn that they expect a resulting fall in inbound travellers.
In conclusion, African governments really need to play their part if African tourism is to avoid the boom or bust of recent years. They need to collaborate with the private sector urgently or Africa’s market share of world tourism will remain a lowly four per cent. And when you’re booming and busting around four per cent, you’re playing with fire.
Graham Boynton has written for numerous newspapers and magazines, including Vanity Fair, Esquire and Condé Nast Traveller, and was the travel editor of The Daily and Sunday Telegraph between 1998 and 2012. A regular visitor to Africa, where he grew up, his current consultancies include work as media director for the African Travel & Tourism Association (www.atta.travel). The views expressed in this column are his own.