players in the global tourism industry are trying to establish Africa as a top
tourist destination. But their efforts are often hampered by the lack of
knowledge and misconceptions about the continent that exist among international
travelers – and even in Africa itself. Research reveals that most foreign
tourists consider Africa – a continent with numerous attractions and excellent
hotels and resorts – to be an underdeveloped “backwater.”
I talk to Americans, very few of them know where Burundi is. A lot don’t even
know there is such a country,” says Celestin Niyongabo, Burundi’s ambassador to
the United States.
uses an anecdote to illustrate what he terms Americans’ “general naïvete” about
a group asked me, ‘Where do you live (in Africa)? In a house?’ And I became so
frustrated! I told them, ‘We live in the bush, and my parents, they live in big
trees. Each child, he has his own branch.’ And they believed me!”
Joe Gerace, sales director at the Wall Street Journal, says one of the
reasons for Americans’ lack of insight into Africa is the fact that very few of
them have ever visited the continent. According to research commissioned by his
newspaper, only 89,000 of more than three million readers who took an overseas
holiday in the past three years went to an African destination.
Brad Ford, who
operates one of the most successful US adventure travel firms, agrees with Gerace.
Every year, Ford organizes tours for 65,000 international clients. But he says
only about 5,000 of them go to Africa.
“They steer clear
of Africa. Mostly because they know little about the place,” he adds.
another international tour guide based in the United States, says ignorance
about Africa is enhanced by the fact that until very recently, most global
travel firms have not operated on the continent.
“We’ve been in
business now for over 82 years and in Africa for a very, very short time,” she
is not a country!’
global travel seminar held in New York, ignorance among even leading members of
the international travel sector about Africa was revealed when several keynote
speakers referred to the continent as a “country.”
The Africans present at the event took such comments in
good stride, but they were nevertheless disappointed by the lack of insight on
these educated people, who are top players in the international tourist
industry, speak of Africa – a continent with more than 50 nations – as a
country, then that just shows the level of ignorance we are dealing with here,”
states Maxwell Eliogu, a Ghanaian who lives in Washington, D.C., and promotes
travel to Africa.
don’t seem to study geography,” he laughs.
Les de Villiers, the South African author of several
guidebooks and a tourism consultant specializing in Africa, has been based in
the US for 25 years. He says in all that time Americans’ knowledge of the
continent has remained “very low.”
to any place (in America) and ask somebody to name more than 10 countries in
Africa and they’ve got a problem. If you go to a conference and you ask
somebody how many countries are there in Africa, they don’t know. And some of
them are business conferences on Africa,” de Villiers comments.
Cohen, an American marketing expert, says he glanced at a US high school history book
recently, and was surprised by what he saw…. Or rather, what he didn’t see.
looked up ‘Africa’, and all they had was the brief history of Egypt. And as far
as most of Africa is concerned, Egypt isn’t even in Africa. We need to educate
our youth. They just don’t know anything about Africa,” he quips.
have encountered many people in this country with college educations who don’t
know a thing about Africa,” adds Chris Onuruah, the Nigerian publisher of a
US-based travel website. “Some of them are innocent about their ignorance. Most
of them are not necessarily trying to degrade Africa. They are expressing the
knowledge that is based on the (little) information (about Africa) that they
have had over the years.”
says he was shocked recently when an American “professional” approached him to
ask: “‘Is (former South African president) Nelson Mandela still the president
of Africa?’ He thought that Africa was just one country and that Mandela was
Onuruah, the Burundian ambassador, Celestin Niyongabo, doesn’t blame Americans
for their lack of knowledge about his home continent.
is their education system that doesn’t teach them anything about Africa,” he
Cook, the publisher of African American Golfer’s Digest, says Americans
are missing out on “wonderful opportunities” because of their ignorance about
Africa. She recently encouraged the magazine’s readers to visit the continent’s
“superb” golf courses, after which she was met with a flurry of reaction.
calling us saying they didn’t know anything about Kenya; tell me a little bit
more; all I know is what I see on television; what kind of golf courses are
over there? Then I told them, you know, it’s beautiful, it’s safe; it’s a
country where you can go and you can meet people and not worry about being
abducted; the economy is flourishing. And they were like, well, you know, we
never see those images….”
Myths about Africa
Paul Cohen says most
Americans think “Africa is just bush” and “slum lands,” yet the continent is
actually home to some of the “most awesome and luxurious” resorts on the
“What I hear from travelers
when they’re asking about visiting Africa is, ‘Where are we going to stay
Cohen says US and other
international hotel groups have built “some of the best properties in the
world” on African soil.
“There are great hotels in
Africa and some fabulous lodges. But again, Americans don’t realize that. So we
need to change perception to what the reality is.”
Rina Paterno, a
New York-based tour operator, says she, too, up until recently believed in the
“myths” about Africa.
“Prior to my own experience of going to Tanzania three
times in the past year, checking out lodges there and so on, I also was kind of
under the same misconception that you go there and it’s very rural and hasn’t
been very developed. I found that
things are very built up in Africa and it is a worldwide premiere destination
where people are going. It is a misconception that it’s not up and coming.”
Cohen says the “number one
misconception” among Americans is that it takes “days” to travel from the US to
Africa, when in reality it’s a mere seven-hour flight from America’s east coast
to Senegal, for example.
“The reality is that
(Africa’s) closer than you think. There are more and more direct and non-stop
flights than ever before. And I think we need to get the message out that it’s
easy to get there.”
says a problem that’s often overlooked with reference to Africa’s tourism
industry is the fact that Africans themselves don’t consider their continent to
be among the world’s top holiday destinations.
“I want to
encourage Africans to travel within Africa, because most Africans travel out;
they go to Paris, to London and New York, and spend a lot of money. Africans
moan about others ignorance of themselves, but those who have money to take
holidays themselves don’t consider their own continent to be a place worth
visiting,” Eliogu says.
have confidence or pride in Africa themselves, so how can they expect anyone
else to?” he asks.
He blames this
situation on Africans’ “colonial mentality…because the African always thinks
anything European is superior and anything African is not that good. The
Africans themselves, if they want the rest of the world to respect them, they
too themselves have to respect what they have.”
raising international travelers’ awareness about Africa should “start from
within” the continent itself.
He exclaims, “It’s so
essential for us to create peace in Africa. And democracy. It’s these conflicts
and dictatorships that drive tourists away from Africa and cause us to have a
bad overall image!”