Tourism in West Africa: an economic, social and cultural opportunity

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Whereas tourism is acknowledged as a driver of socio-economic development and growth in Africa, as evidenced in the last African Tourism Monitor, the 2015 edition of the annual report on competitiveness in travel and tourism, released in early May by the World Economic Forum (WEF), points out that West Africa lags behind when it comes to the travel sector. The ten West African countries assessed in the report all appear in the bottom half of the ranking. Cabo Verde, 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. 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 this year, 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 lodging, skilled staff, and inadequate service sector and production standards required for competing on the international travel industry market (in terms of hygiene, quality, safety). 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 reputational 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. Things are already 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 strategy 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.

 

A Guest Editorial