Tourism As An Economic, Social And Cultural Opportunity In West Africa
For years now, tourism is acknowledged as a driver of socio-economic development and growth around the world and Africa inclusive.
African Tourism Monitor, the 2015 edition of the annual report on competitiveness in travel and tourism, released in May of that year by the World Economic Forum [WEF], pointed out that West Africa lags behind when it comes to the travel sector.
Out of the ten West African countries assessed in that report, all appear in the bottom half of the ranking.
Cabo Verde is the top-ranked country from the region, ranks 86th out of 141. Guinea recorded the lowest score at 140th; securing the penultimate position in the overall ranking while the eight remaining West African countries are in the bottom quarter, among the least globally competitive countries in terms of tourism.
While the relevance of the index itself is a question for debate, this ranking reflects at least two realities in the region. First, there is still low attractiveness for West Africa as a destination for international tourism.
Apart from the unique case of Cabo Verde, which has made tourism a priority, the region has few “tourist destinations.
“To date, only Ghana and Senegal have passed the significant threshold of one million international tourists. [Nigeria, which had passed the threshold in 2008, has fallen below since 2011.]
In 2012, the region as a whole welcomed 4.5 million tourists, which generated US $3.2 billion in revenue. These figures represent respectively 14% of international arrivals and 13% of tourism revenues recorded in Sub-Saharan Africa in 2015, and 8% and 6% respectively of the African total [North Africa included].
Moreover, the WEF index reveals the unsuitability of tourism for countries in the region.
Generally speaking, all of the requisite factors are lacking, first and foremost limited accessibility in terms of airline traffic.
The region also reports shortages of hotels and other lodgings, skilled staff, and inadequate service sector and production standards required for competing on the international travel industry market [in terms of hygiene, quality, safety]. That is now changing.
Security concerns, current or residual, compound these structural weaknesses, damaging the image of the entire region. Political frailty, health threats [malaria, Ebola], or even the threat of terrorism [Sahel, Nigeria] are some of the reputation challenges the region needs to address to increase its tourism competitively.
However, at a time when the region is establishing solid foundations when there is an ever-growing need for economic diversification, and when international tourism continues to expand globally – including in Africa – the region could seek to become relevant inside global tourist networks.
In the last five years, things have started changing. In 2014, West Africa was the second-largest proportion in the hotel chain development pipeline in Africa, with more than 13,500 new rooms planned [34.1% of the African total].
Senegal has already shown its ambition, by setting the goal of attracting 3 million tourists by 2025, and so has Ghana, which recently adopted a comprehensive tourism development plan for 2013-2027.
Guinea-Bissau has also made tourism a key focus of its recent year ten-year strategic plan.
Other countries, including Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso, might utilize the tourism sector, or its renewal, as a way to consolidate their transitions.
According to Trevor Ward, W Hospitality Group’s Managing Director, recently hotel pipeline development in terms of total planned rooms for Nigeria is down 5.1% on 2017, but it still has 4,146 rooms actually under construction, out of a total of 9,603 in 57 hotels.
The survey further showed that “impressive strides” have been made by Cote d’Ivoire, moving into the top five West African countries with 10 new hotels in the pipeline, a 205.7% increase on last year, while 549 of the total 1,830 rooms are on site.
According to the report, all the planned hotels are in Abidjan, driven by multiple deals signed by AccorHotels and by Marriott. This reflects the confidence in the country as the return to democracy, after several years of civil war, have brought economic and political stability, with the International Monetary Fund [IMF] forecasting gross domestic product [GDP] growth of 7.4% this year, one of the highest on the continent.
Cape Verde is sustaining its growth with 2,710 rooms now on site, up 15.3% on 2017 with Sao Vincente accounting for 28% of the country’s pipeline.
Other developments are in Boa Vista, Mindelo, Praia, Sal and Santiago.
Senegal, with 17 hotels in the pipeline is another strong performer, up 16.2% per cent in 2017 in terms of rooms. A total of 80% are in Dakar, while the remainder is in Cap Skirring and Mbour.
However, Marriott still heads the chains in the region, with 26 planned hotels with 5,354 rooms, up 25%., Louvre Hotels Group is moving up, with seven hotels with 807 rooms, an 83% increase.
In total, the chains show a 10% increase in 2017 with 22,680 pipeline rooms in West Africa.
Without a doubt, this is a timely opportunity for a region rich in natural and cultural endowments to showcase them to the rest of the world.
Across West Africa, especially seaside tourism could be developed and promoted on the international market. This model, which is already in place in Gambia and Senegal could also be adopted by Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, that would have positive spillover effects on the local economy and job creation through inter-firm linkages in the sector.
A second segment with strong potential is that of business tourism, which accounts for one-quarter of international tourism in Sub-Saharan Africa. The economic boom is attracting a growing number of investors, entrepreneurs and development financiers, who require places to gather and hold meetings.
Other sub-sectors, such as cultural tourism and ecotourism, may also be harnessed for the fight against poverty in rural areas, as demonstrated by W National Park, which is jointly managed by Niger, Burkina Faso, Benin and Nigeria.
To make this tourism a reality, the countries of the region could rely on two major source markets. The first is that of the Northern countries, particularly in Europe, with which the non-tourist exchanges are already firmly established [airline agreements, trade, diaspora].
The second is the South-South market of West Africa, which is growing, thanks to the emergence of the upper middle classes in the region.
In Ghana, for example, more than a third of international tourists come from the Economic Community of West African States [ECOWAS] zone.
This regional market could be organized based on the logic of complementarity rather than competition. The large and growing market of Nigeria could be the powerhouse of the system, with each country adding its specific and complementary tourist offer to the benefit of the region as a whole.
Countries that are candidates for tourism development must craft an integrated strategy, including general multi-sector aspects [business climate, energy, water, telecommunications] and strictly sectoral aspects [investments, regulations, training, facilities, mobility, promotion].
This massive project should not be conceived of only as a simple economic opportunity.
Rather, it carries with it significant cultural and civic dimensions, since tourism could contribute to the development and enhancement of local resources in the region [urban life, heritage, landscape, handicrafts].
It would allow West Africa to strengthen its appeal to investors, diasporas, and other population flows it will witness in the coming years.
Meanwhile, some countries that were left out of the World Economic Forum report are however making stride now according to a recent analysis by Kirk Leigh, a Nigerian leading financial journalist in a paper he presented at the 2018 African Travel Times Magazine Awards Ceremony that was held in Ghana.
Kirk asserted that currently, the top five gainers in terms of contribution of travel and tourism to their Gross Domestic product [GDP] in West Africa are, Gambia, Senegal, Mali, Togo and Ivory Coast.
This situation will remain largely unchanged by 2027 with the Gambia, Mali, Senegal, Ivory Coast and Ghana making the top five eventually.