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Africa Looks at Ways to Expand Tourism Revenue

African policy makers are looking at new ways to promote economic growth, including tourism. Development experts say the sector can help reduce poverty with employment opportunities, and attract foreign exchange.

Africa is being discovered again, this time by tourists.

According to the World Bank, there were about 800 million global tourists last year and nearly 24 million went to Sub-Saharan Africa.

The new generation of tourists differs from those who came before. They are not just going on animal safaris in Kenya or investigating the flora and fauna of Madagascar.

Today, they are sky-diving in Tanzania, sampling Ugandan tea and coffee, praying in Ethiopia's early Christian churches, and viewing the repression - and heroism - of South Africa's Robben Island and Ghana's slave castles.

The influx of foreign, and even domestic, tourism means more money for local businesses and farmers.

Shaun Mann is a tourism development specialist with the Africa region of the World Bank. He says the institution is encouraging international hotel chains in Africa to use local operators and food suppliers.

He explained how one Bank intervention has benefited the community in Livingstone, Zambia, near Victoria Falls. He says at least one hotel there, Sun International, depends on manpower and food from South Africa.

"We intervened through a consortium of local operators," he said. "We provided them with training designed by the hotel, and this extended not only to tours but also to the supply of vegetables, eggs, chickens, all of which they used to buy from South Africa. There are another 40 smaller lodges and smaller hotels in the area. We looked at the demand for produce, vegetables, for all of those hotels. We then set up a project that facilitated storage, and these guys got together as a cooperative. They used the storage facility to supply all of these hotels. It created 250 jobs. More importantly, it had a real impact on the relationship between some of the foreign-owned hotels and the local community."

Mann adds that the hotels also benefited; thanks to using local produce and services, their operating expenses dropped by one-third.

The appeal of tourism has not been lost on African officials and tour operators. They are using a variety of methods to attract more visitors.

South Africa is engaging in sports tourism, hoping to increase the sector's contribution to the economy from about seven percent to nearly double that within four years.

Dr. Patrick Matlou is the Deputy Director General for Tourism in the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism in South Africa.

"We have a number of sports people from Europe who train here because of the high altitude, [like] hiking and rugby fields, and rivers for canoeing," he noted.

The biggest sporting attraction is the Fifa World Cup, which South Africa will host in 2010. The country is spending millions of dollars in improving infrastructure in the cities that will be featuring sports events. He says city planners are integrating the athletic facilities into entertainment and office districts that will continue to draw crowds long after the end of the World Cup.

Matlou, who calls tourism the new gold, says South Africa is also appealing to visitors interested in medicine, health and well-being.

He also notes that the country has long had a world-class medical infrastructure, which is less expensive than that of many Western countries. He says potential medical excursions could range from heart transplants to face lifts and even consultations with local medicine men, called sangomas.

He says the government and medical establishment are working to document viable herbal and natural therapies. They include hoodia, a plant said to suppress appetite, and rooibus, a legume known for its sweet and nutty-flavored tea. The plant is also used in cosmetic products.

Rwanda, the home of one of the last century's worst genocides, is also using a multi-tiered strategy to attract tourism. Like South Africa, it is using sports to entice the athletically-minded. Into the mix, it is adding a cultural, and even agricultural, appeal.

Rwanda's director general for tourism and national parks, Rosette Rugamba, says the country is now offering a peace marathon in May, one month after the official commemoration of the 1994 genocide that killed up to one million people. Then in August, there is a Mountain Gorillas Rally for auto-racers brave enough to take on the winding roads of the land of a thousand hills. One month later, bicycle racers take their turn.

Ms. Rugamba says part of the attraction of the race is the excitement of using an indigenous technology in the challenge.

"There is a special wooden bike upcountry in Rwanda," she said. "They are made locally; the tire is made of wood, and that has become an extra pleasure to the professionals and local Rwandese who are racing an indigenous product."

Rugamba says if all goes well, athletes will stay an extra week or so to relax in the country's hot water springs, or tour local tea and coffee plantations. The strategy, which is also used in neighboring Uganda, takes the visitor from the fields to the factory, where the coffee is milled and packaged into a personal souvenir of their experience.

The country's recent past, however, is not forgotten. A cultural tour takes the visitor from episodes of royalty, to colonialism, independence, and the 1994 cataclysm.

Rugamba says visitors will leave knowing that their money is going into the rehabilitation of a nation proud, if not torn.

Roughly five percent of all tourism revenues will go, she says, back to local communities, which are also encouraged to get involved in business opportunities made available by tourism. Officials say 28,000 visitors came to Rwanda last year. By 2010, they say that figure could triple. Rugamba estimates that if each visitor spent $200 per day for a week's stay, the tourist sector alone could provide the country with up to $100 million per year.

Small, beautiful and warm is how Rugamba describes her country. There is so much more to the culture for visitors to appreciate, she says, than memories of the film Hotel Rwanda.