in the international tourism industry are making concerted efforts to establish
Africa as the world’s next top travel destination. They’re facing an uphill
battle, as statistics show that most international tourists don’t consider the
continent to be a good place for a holiday. Travel experts blame this on
Africa’s poor reputation. They say tourists continue to view the continent as a
place wracked with poverty, conflict and disease – and little else – despite
the fact that Africa offers visitors a myriad of wonderful vacation
big problem about trying to sell Africa is (that tourists) think it’s dangerous
to them; they’re going to get a disease; they’re going to get killed in civil
strife; the cities are dirty,” says Sean Barlow, producer of Afropop Worldwide,
a company that sells African music programs to 110 radio stations in the United
States and organizes cultural tours to the continent.
Walton, of the Africa Channel, a privately owned television station with
offices in London, New York and Johannesburg, acknowledges that the continent’s
image among travelers, and especially those in the US, is “probably about the worst in the world.”
According to research
recently commissioned by Walton, only two per cent of the 30 million Americans
who vacation outside their homeland every year visit Africa.
“When you see statistics like
these, then you know you’ve got a lot of work to do in terms of improving Africa’s
image,” he states.
Mariam Adam, a Tanzanian tour operator, says most
Americans she comes into contact with in the US consider Africa “just a place
of famine, war and crime. When they think of Africa, they don’t generally think
of exotic destinations. They think of war and violence in Somalia, Sudan and
Zimbabwe, as it appears on television news bulletins.”
Samantha Taylor, the Kenyan owner of a company aiming to
improve Africa’s image globally, says despite democratic and economic advances
on the continent, there’s a still a fundamental “lack of trust and confidence”
in Africa among international travelers. This, she says, is due to some
“current political events and some untrustworthy social and business
Cohen, an American marketing guru whose firm is credited with boosting tourist
numbers to Vietnam, says the “final and largest obstacles” preventing Africa
from becoming one of the world’s premiere travel destinations remain “safety
and security concerns, sanitary issues and food issues.”
says most international travelers continue to think of Africa as a “dangerous
and dirty” place where good, nutritious food is unavailable and where they’re
likely to contract a serious illness.
(President) George (W.) Bush in Africa (on television) and they’re talking
about malaria and AIDS and all the problems. Well, what we need to do is talk
about all the positive attributes – whether it’s the beaches, the golf, the
wineries, the safaris. Africa has so much to offer. We need to change the brand
and the perception from the negative to the positives,” Cohen emphasizes.
Gerace, who works for the travel section of the Wall Street Journal newspaper,
agrees that most American tourists base their views of a holiday destination on
information they glean from the mainstream media – and also from Hollywood.
last five movies I’ve seen on Africa – (including) ‘Blood Diamond’ and ‘The
Interpreter’ – all have had violence (as themes),” he says.
Maxwell Eliogu, a
Ghanaian based in Washington, D.C., whose communications company markets Africa
to American travelers, expresses an opinion that’s on the lips of many
concerned with promoting holidays on his home continent: “It’s time for Africa
to take control of her own reputation.”
Eliogu states, “We
Africans want to start to manage our own image and our own media. For too long
we’ve left other people to represent us, other people to report about who we
Like many African
government officials, James Mwangi of the Kenyan embassy in Washington largely
blames journalists for Africa’s poor international image.
“If you look at the
American market, the media is very critical in selling a country’s tourism
opportunities. And when I look at Africa, there are always those very negative
stories. But to me every day there’s really a good story about Africa (that
could be told).”
Yet, Mwangi says,
these stories hardly ever appear in the international media.
“Instead all we are
told about Africa is war, death, AIDS and (conflict in) Darfur and food
But Brad Ford, a
US-based tour operator who sends hundreds of international travelers to Africa
every year, insists it’s not journalists’ work to be public relations agents
for governments or tour companies. His view is that international and African
tourism industry players should mount an intense campaign aimed at urging
travelers to rely less on the media in terms of forming an image of a
destination, and more on speaking with people who’ve actually experienced the
place they intend to visit.
A case in point,
Ford says, is Kenya. After post-election violence in the country at the
beginning of the year, tourist numbers in the East African nation dwindled to a
trickle even though, says Ford, most of Kenya – including the county’s leading
attractions – were untouched by conflict. He’s sure that if potential visitors
to the country had access to knowledgeable people, instead of “taking their
lead” from the world’s media headlines, they would have considered a vacation
‘Uncooperative’ African authorities
people trying to boost tourism in Africa lament what they call the “reluctance”
of the African Union, regional organizations on the continent and international
African embassies to help them in their mission.
need to open more doors, and more collaborative initiatives. Not only with the
Africans and NGOs, but also with the press, because information is very
important,” says Chris Onuorah, the Nigerian editor of Africa Message, a New
York-based website that spreads positive news about Africa around the world,
and advertises the continent as an ideal travel destination.
feels that African officials often ignore their own people and turn instead to
international companies for help in publicizing the “good things” about Africa.
aren’t cooperating with Africans. Our governments and tourism officials moan
about everything, and how they’re discriminated against. Yet they discriminate
against themselves by always looking overseas for help, for expertise. We
ignore our own communities; even our government organs don’t work with us; they
prefer to work with foreigners,” Onuorah maintains.
Brad Ford says he’s
had several bad experiences with African governments.
internationally some situations where governments were not necessarily so
hospitable to a lot of the tourists that are coming into the areas that we
visit,” he says.
That’s why, Ford
adds, his firm now prefers to create lasting relationships with the African
communities who live near the various attractions to which he takes visitors,
rather than with state officials.
According to Edward
Bergman, the director of the Africa Travel Association in New York, those
seeking “positive information” about destinations in Africa from embassies in
the U.S. are often disappointed.
“No one bothers to
return your calls. Or the phones just ring. Or you’re told that the information
that you want is not available,” Bergman laments.
Continent’ and ‘primitive versus modern’ Africa
again to President Bush’s visit earlier this year to Africa, Mark Walton says
the world saw only the “negative or neutral pictures” related to the
event. Yet, at a press conference at the White House shortly after Mr. Bush’s
return to Washington, the media got a very different picture of Africa.
Bush did a slide show. It was incredible. It was President Bush and (his wife)
Laura eating and dancing and conversing in (African) villages.”
continues: “If masses of Americans had seen this, instead of the bland or
negative images that came out during the president’s African tour, their bad
attitudes towards Africa would’ve changed overnight. But no one’s seen these
images. Where are the videos of these things?”
officials such as James Mwangi of Kenya’s US Embassy, Walton doesn’t blame the
media for this situation. Like Brad Ford, he says the onus is on the travel
sector itself to market Africa as “no longer the Dark Continent, but the
says the African and international travel industries must present Africa as a
“vibrant place, full of sights, sounds and colors.”
Dr. Lawrence Martin, an anthropologist at Stony Brook
University in New York, is convinced that Africa’s status as the “Cradle of
Humankind” will only improve the continent’s image internationally.
But others in Africa’s tourism industry, including Maxwell
Eliogu, don’t agree. The communications specialist, who publishes a magazine
dedicated to traveling in Africa, acknowledges the tourism value in “selling
Africa as the birthplace of human beings” but adds that many Africans are
“skeptical” about it.
“We are tired of being seen as apes. Some of us consider
ourselves to be contemporary Africans who are tired of these images,” Eliogu
Some tour operators, though, like Mariam Adam, believe
it’s “valuable” for the continent to reinforce its reputation as the origin of
civilization and that this shouldn’t be seen in a negative and “overly
But Eliogu maintains: “Some Europeans travel to Africa to
trace the roots of their race. They look at Africans as a primitive form of
human development…. When they look at Africa as a cradle of human civilization,
that’s exactly what they perceive.”
concedes, “Cultural anthropology is so tied up with imperialism and colonialism
that it has a sorry history – particularly in Europe and America, and its
involvement in racism as well.” But he says the world has “moved on” and it’s
time for Africa to embrace its heritage as the place where man originated so
that Africans receive the “respect they deserve.”
one of the hopes that as we get this word out, people will realize that it’s
illogical to have any questions about the equality of Africa, the equality of
African people. The centrality of African people in the heritage of all
humanity (is what it’s about),” Martin asserts.
insists that he’ll use his magazine to “reflect contemporary Africa” and not
“ancient” or “traditional” Africa: “Africa belongs in the 21st century, not in prehistory, when apes roamed the earth.”
The Vietnam example
says of all the strategies that could be implemented to improve Africa’s image
abroad, “old-fashioned marketing” is most important.
one invests in a country that they don’t visit, and no one visits a country
that they haven’t seen (in advertisements),” he declares.
de Villiers, the South African author of several guidebooks and a tourism
consultant specializing in Africa, says the continent can look to several
international success stories for guidance in boosting tourist numbers.
“Vietnam the other day was a country that everybody hated.
And today, you find that people want to go there and want to do business there.
And to a large extent it’s the way in which they promoted it, and it didn’t
happen…in one day.”
De Villiers says it’s going to take a long time to make
Africa one of the globe’s top travel destinations.
Lelei LeLaulu, a former United Nations official who now
works for a non-profit organization that advocates sustainable tourism, says a
key step towards achieving this should be the introduction of tourism as a
subject in African schools.
“We’re not going to get very far in the development of
tourism in the longer term until we focus on education right at the first
grade, at the primary, elementary school level,” LeLaulu emphasizes.
He points to Barbados as a place that’s boosted tourist
numbers significantly since schools on the West Indian island started
instructing pupils in tourism studies.
“Tanzania is also beginning to teach tourism in the first
grade,” he says. “So what we have to do is focus on education so that the best
and the brightest of the youth in Africa select tourism as their first and not
their last resort for a career.”