How the region can realise its great tourism potential

During the just-concluded Intergovernmental Committee of Experts (ICE) meeting in Moroni, Comoros, experts acknowledged that the east African region harbors great but untapped tourism potential.

During the just-concluded Intergovernmental Committee of Experts (ICE) meeting in Moroni, Comoros, experts acknowledged that the east African region harbors great but untapped tourism potential.

Experts from 14 regional countries had discussions centered on tourism development for structural transformation as the sector is seen as a great facilitator of structural transformation.


During the three-day meeting organised by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) in partnership with the government of Comoros, Geoffrey Manyara, an ECA specialist on tourism, described the main obstacles to the sector’s development.


These, he noted, include sub-optimal institutional frameworks, inadequate funding for tourism development, a weak private sector, disenfranchised local communities, inadequate infrastructure and related services, lack of appropriate marketing strategies, market marginalization – enclave industries and foreign-based tourism – and inadequate harnessing of the potential of regional integration.


The sector is estimated to provide more than six million jobs but its full potential is far from being realised.

Africa’s share of the global tourism industry, it was noted, remains small, with the continent’s share shrinking over the past decade, from 4.8 percent of global arrivals and receipts in 2006 down to 3.3 percent in 2016. The 21st ICE meeting focused on how to enhance tourism competitiveness in the region.  

In Moroni, Thomas Kigabo, a chief economist at the National Bank of Rwanda (BNR), suggested during an exclusive interview that for the region to realize its great tourism potential, regional leaders need to harmonize strategy as well as make things happen.

He told Sunday Times that: “We have potential to develop the sector but it is very important for leaders, the economic managers, to first understand that tourism is one sure way of generating revenues and they thus put in place strategies to really use existing opportunities.

“We have numbers and we have opportunities but we need to transform these opportunities. We need to have infrastructure, we need to have a common understanding, at regional level about the ways and means of developing the tourism sector.”

According to Kigabo, requisite infrastructure in this case includes hotels, roads and other transport means.

“But we also need to attract more visitors and all this calls for a common understanding of the required strategy.”

For Carmen Nibigira, a tourism expert and former coordinator of the East Africa Tourism Platform, the untapped potential of the region all lies “in the fact that we have different levels of understanding how we complement each other.”

“You cannot talk about regional integration unless you mention free movement of people, services, standardisation, and development of quality and so on. If you build something in isolation and don’t know what is going on around you, you are benchmarking yourself against nothing.
Traditional market costing us a lot of money

We’ve so much to offer in terms of tourist attractions. Secondly, we have not tapped into the growing east African middle class. Our region today has the highest number of educated people than any other time in history. They are informed too and have access to finance but still, we don’t see them as a potential tourism market. We’re still going to the traditional market – Europe and America who are costing us a lot of money.

Nibigira who is now a tourism and travel consultant has a formula that sheds light on the gravity of the matter.

She told Sunday Times that, for example, to attract an American tourist to east Africa, to come for a one life experience, it costs the tourism board somewhere between $3,000 to $4,000, on average. The tourist comes into the country and probably spends $15,000 and the return on investment is very minimal, she explained.

“But an east African will not cost the board much because I will not come to Kenya as a one life time visitor. I am a repetitive client. You may spend $500 or even less but I am your client for life. If I don’t come for a conference I will come for shopping, visiting friends and relatives, medical checkup, or any other reason. If you consider my network and potential for marketing east Africa, the return on investment is 10 times higher.”

Yes, she said, the region needs the cash cow of American and British tourists but “we must start cultivating the culture of travel” in east Africans.

“Our way of doing business has always focused on those who are giving us quick money, and we don’t look at the sustainability of potential clients, we fail often to justify regional tourist offer.”

In 2009, Kenya introduced the Tembea Kenya (Tour Kenya) campaign to promote tourism among thousands of Kenyans through subsidized rates and it is reportedly reaping big. Last year, Rwanda borrowed a leaf and launched its Tembera U Rwanda campaign aimed at motivating Rwandans to explore their own country and put the spotlight on domestic travel.

Kenya’s move came following security threats posed by the Al-Shabaab terrorist activity, when Western countries crippled the sector when they issued travel bans as a result of security fears.

Today, Nibigira said, Kenyans count for 50 per cent of nights in hotels in their own country and this is driven by domestic market according to the Kenya Tourism Board.

“You sensitise, educate, and give discounts. In Kenya, as an east African, I am given an east African rate. My children have been to about five national parks because schools have an incentive and every child visits a park because of this entrenched culture in Kenya.”

Her advice to policy makers in the region is that the future of the region as a tourist destination lies in the region opening up and breaking down the barriers. After removing hurdles such as in the free movement of services and visa restrictions, she says, the region now needs to move a step further.

“What we now have pending are key issues affecting the region. We should look at east Africa as a destination competing with other destinations. Let’s eschew that myopic vision that ‘we are Kenya, we are Tanzania, we are Uganda or we are Rwanda’ because we are too small, or too weak, to stand alone.”

“As a policy maker, I would encourage open skies, looking at economies of scale, concentrate on how we open our borders more, travel more, and discover more of our destinations. My point is; we can do better! Dream big, have a visionary leadership to take us to the next level.”

Inter and intra-regional tourism, and trade, is the essence of everything, Nibigira said.

Every policy formulation effort, she said, has to bear in mind that this is a regional economic bloc.

Presenting an overview of Tourism Competitiveness in Eastern Africa, Manyara, indicated that the value of the industry in Africa stood at over US $180 billion, accounting for eight percent of the continent’s GDP in 2016.

In the region it is valued at over US $22 billion accounting for 13.6 percent of GDP, which accounts for 19 percent of total exports, The industry also accounted for more than 8.7 percent of total investments valued at US$ 6.6 billion, and generated 6.3 million jobs, or just over of 13 percent of total employment.

At the continental level, it is projected that at five percent, the tourism industry will grow much faster than forecasted 4.8 percent average annual economic growth rate for the continent over the next 10 years. The region itself is at 1.79 percent of growing much faster than the continent’s 0.64 percent annual tourism growth rate.

New oil for Africa is tourism

Her parting shot, Nibigira said, is the continent’s other natural assets – including minerals like oil, gold, diamonds and others, added no much value to the continent because they would be shipped away raw and returned to “us” at a higher premium cost but it is high time people realize that the “new oil for Africa is tourism.”

In the last 10 or 15 years, she noted, natural resource rich countries such as Gabon and Togo did not have a tourism strategy. But things have changed.

“The new gold is tourism but it will not sustain any country if it is just a political narrative. It is the most complex and dynamic industry, with multiple and integrated sectors, from food, transportation, processing, human capital, to labor laws and others. It has to have a framework where everything comes from the top, like was done in Rwanda. There must be political will indicating the desired direction and how we are going to get there, and then be measureable.”

While oil and other such resources will be depleted, she said, tourism is here to stay.

“Tourism has to have a base of a political good will, vision and well thought out strategy which has to go through a process of implementation.”

Endalkachew Sime, the Secretary General of the Ethiopian Chamber Of Commerce and Sectoral Associations, told this reporter that progress in his country – the second most populous African country after Nigeria – is very slow considering their vast tourism potential.

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