Leading 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.”
“When 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.
He uses an anecdote to illustrate what he terms Americans’ “general naïvete” about Africa.
“Recently 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.
Angela Reynolds, 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 acknowledges.
‘Africa is not a country!’
At a 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 display.
“If 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.
“Americans 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.”
“Go 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.
Paul 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.
“I 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.
“I 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.”
Onuruah 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 its leader.”
Like Onuruah, the Burundian ambassador, Celestin Niyongabo, doesn’t blame Americans for their lack of knowledge about his home continent.
“It is their education system that doesn’t teach them anything about Africa,” he maintains.
Debert 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.
“People were 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 planet.
“What I hear from travelers when they’re asking about visiting Africa is, ‘Where are we going to stay there?’”
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.”
Africans themselves ignoring Africa
Maxwell Eliogu 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.
“Africans don’t 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.”
Eliogu says 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!”