African countries are investing heavily in trying to attract tourists from the world's biggest outbound travel market, China, as they battle to recover from losses suffered during the travel bans of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"COVID wiped out large parts of tourism industries, especially in poorer parts of the world like Africa,” said Mike Fabricius, a specialist in tourism management, consulting and marketing for his Johannesburg-based company, The Journey. “Some African countries rely heavily on the foreign exchange that tourists bring in and the money they spend in domestic markets. To lose that for a few years was a heavy, heavy blow."
In 2019, before the pandemic, the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) estimated that tourism in Africa had a yearly growth rate of 5% and contributed an average of 8.5% to GDP.
The WTTC said direct investments into the tourism sector were about $29 billion, and that tourism created jobs for 24.3 million direct employees, accounting for 6.4% of Africa's total working population.
It estimated that COVID-19 travel bans cost Africa at least a third to half of these numbers.
"We saw similar losses across all major African tourism markets," said Peter Masila, a tourism lecturer at Moi University in Kenya.
Nomasonto Ndlovu, chief operations officer of South African Tourism, said 500,000 jobs were lost in the local tourism sector because of the pandemic.
"We're confident of a good recovery by end 2024, especially because we're targeting tourists from a huge market like China," she said.
In 2019, 155 million Chinese tourists visited foreign destinations.
"It's true that relatively few chose to come to Africa," said Ndlovu. "Only 95,000 visited South Africa in 2019. So, we can't blame COVID entirely for low numbers of Chinese visitors. As far as South Africa's concerned, we're now spending a lot of money on new plans and strategies to win more Chinese over, and I know other African countries are doing the same."
Discounts on airfare
South Africa, Egypt, Kenya and Tanzania are some of the countries now offering more direct flights to China.
Kenya is partnering with Chinese social media platforms and marketing attractions such as the Maasai Mara game reserve on WeChat and TikTok.
Tanzania's national airline is offering discounts of up to 50% on flights to and from China. Still, the country’s tourism board projects that only 45,000 Chinese will have visited Tanzania by the end of the year.
But Fabricius said African authorities were placing too much emphasis on numbers.
He has worked on tourism projects in China and elsewhere for the United Nations and the World Bank and formulated strategies for global tourism authorities.
"I don't think Africa's a place for the mass tourism Chinese market," said Fabricius.
"The Chinese market has evolved a lot. It used to be thrown in one pot, like the Chinese only travel in big groups and take lots of pictures; they only go to the big places,” he said. “But with a new generation of travelers, there's no longer such a thing as 'the Chinese tourist'; it's become a lot more diversified and segmented."
Fabricius said the Chinese mass market remained focused on "iconic" international travel destinations, such as New York, Paris and London.
"Africa's not going to attract that bulk market; it remains a niche destination for the Chinese,” he said. “So, what you want to do is attract Chinese tourists with focused interests in things like culture, wildlife and exploring."
Rosemary Anderson, chairperson of the FEDHASA organization, which represents hospitality industries across Southern Africa, said continental authorities should indeed be promoting "unique experiences."
"We have rich cultural assets and diverse experiences” she said. “South Africa, for example, offers every experience imaginable — wildlife safaris, stunning landscapes, vibrant culture and adventure activities. We need to emphasize experiences that are distinctive."
'Visa access is essential'
According to Anderson and Fabricius, government inefficiency and complicated visa requirements remain challenges to African efforts to lure Chinese tourists.
"Visa access is essential," Fabricius said. "It's no good having all this slick marketing and then your government lets you down by making it hard for the Chinese to get visas."
Anderson agreed. "Although we (South Africa) have an e-Visa system that accepts applications by Chinese nationals, the process remains cumbersome and is not fully optimized."
She suggested that marketing initiatives should span both the public and private sectors, ensuring that messaging is targeted to attract diverse budgets, ages, travel interests, preferences and travel motivations.
"We also need to do more to ensure that destination and product information is available on Chinese search engines and marketing on Chinese social media channels, like Weibo and WeChat," she said.
Fabricius said efforts to attract Chinese visitors should "actually begin at home," not in Beijing.
"China is Africa's biggest trade partner, and many thousands of Chinese business travelers are visiting the continent every day," he said.
"That creates another opportunity: These people who come on a business trip and then after that they tell others about their experiences and that creates a second wave of the leisure travel market," he said.
This story originated in VOA's English to Africa Service.