How Bolstering the Tourist Industry in Africa Can Reduce Poverty


SEATTLE — Historically, only the northern and southern tips of the African continent attracted significant attention from global jet setters. Roman amphitheaters, Moorish palaces—and of course the pyramids—have for many years drawn site-seers to North Africa from all corners of the globe. On the other hand, South Africa’s fertile valleys, towering promontories and rare animal species have secured a sustainable tourist industry that plays an important role in the national economy. A wealth of untapped potential remains across the middle of the continent, but the tourist industry in Africa is steadily growing, bringing jobs and investment and lifting many from poverty.

Tourism represents a growing component of total consumer spending around the world and has been frequently identified as a possible boon for developing economies. The latest World Travel and Tourist Council report found that tourism now fuels more than 10 percent of the global economy, and is on average growing faster than other sectors. Beyond direct employment in hospitality and entertainment, tourism can contribute to a well-rounded economy by stimulating investment in construction, transportation, infrastructure, food and retail.

The rich diversity of cultures, landscapes and wildlife that make up the African continent have much to offer to global tourists; and a steady stream of visitors could boost revenue and create jobs that lift workers from poverty. With the backing of development agencies, including the World Bank and the United Nations, African leaders are tuning into this possibility and taking steps to invest in the tourism sector.


A thriving tourist sector requires a level of existing stability and infrastructure in order to take root. Since gaining independence from European colonists, development in much of sub-Saharan Africa has been hampered by warring, corruption and intractable poverty. Consequently, tourists have been steered away by perceptions of poor living standards, and in some cases, fears over safety. Visa requirements, maintained by inefficient bureaucracies, can also inhibit tourists from visiting African states and traveling between them.

But there are signs of positive change on the horizon.

Ghana: National Tourism Development Plan

In 1996 the Ghanaian government launched its “National Tourism Development Plan” to encourage the development of a sustainable tourist industry. The program came to an end in 2010 but has since been superseded by new, clearer measures for stimulating tourism. A 2012 Government report noted that despite setbacks from regime change and bouts of political instability, progress has been made on a number of key objectives.

Between 2000 and 2011, annual international arrivals to Ghana nearly doubled from 330,506 to 577,661, while overall air traffic increased from 352,000 passengers in 1996 to 1.73 million in 2011. According to WTTC data, by 2018 the tourist sector was directly responsible for 307,500 Ghanaian jobs and was contributing 6.7 percent of Ghana’s GDP.

Ethiopia: Sustainable Tourism Master Plan

Throughout the 19 years of peace that have followed since the end of the Eritrean-Ethiopian war in 2000, Ethiopia has experienced uninterrupted economic growth, along with a significant reduction of its population living in poverty. Some of this is attributable to a growing tourism sector, which is now receiving government support through the Sustainable Tourism Master Plan [STMP].

The government’s tourism objectives are given voice in the National Tourism Development Policy, [NTDP] which serves as a policy vehicle for the STMP. The STMP lays out 10 guiding “pillars” that include infrastructure, conservation, tourist safety and product development. According to WTTC data, the direct contribution of travel and tourism to Ethiopia’s economy rose from approximately $352 million in 2003 to $1318 million in 2014 and is estimated to continue growing beyond 2024. By 2018, the total number of Ethiopian jobs derived directly and indirectly from tourism surpassed 1.5 million, or around 6 percent of overall employment.

The Future of the Tourist Industry in Africa

Between 2000 and 2017, the majority of the growth to the tourist industry in Africa occurred in the sub-Saharan region. Government programs, infrastructural development and trends toward regional peace and stability have all contributed to this, and look set to continue doing so moving forward.

So far, African states rely mainly on international holidaymakers to fund their tourist industries; but in states like Kenya and Senegal, where growth has been both high and consistent, it is easy to envisage a future where a growing middle class contributes to a domestic tourism sector. Regional blocs like The Economic Community of West African States are helping ease travel between African states by allowing visa-free travel within participating countries, laying the groundwork for increased intra-African travel and tourism.

Along more ambitious lines, the African Union has plans to roll out visa-free travel across the entire continent—but it could be a long time before this ever materializes.

Jamie Wiggan
Photo: Pixabay


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