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Poor Image Blocks Tourist Flow to Africa [Part 2 of 5]

Leaders 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 possibilities.

“A 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.

Mark 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 practices.”

Paul 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.”

Cohen 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.

“You watch (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.

Joe 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.

“The 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 are.”

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 shortages.”

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 in Kenya.

‘Uncooperative’ African authorities

Many 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.

“They 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.

Onuorah feels that African officials often ignore their own people and turn instead to international companies for help in publicizing the “good things” about Africa.

“Africans 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.

“We’ve had 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.

‘Technicolor Continent’ and ‘primitive versus modern’ Africa

Referring 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.

“President Bush did a slide show. It was incredible. It was President Bush and (his wife) Laura eating and dancing and conversing in (African) villages.”

Walton 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?”

Unlike 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 Technicolor Continent.”

Walton 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 stresses.

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 sensitive” light.

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.”

Martin 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.”

“It’s 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.

Eliogu, though, 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

Walton says of all the strategies that could be implemented to improve Africa’s image abroad, “old-fashioned marketing” is most important.

“No 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.

Les 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.”