International tourism experts are banding together to market Africa as the world?s next premiere travel destination. Some are trying to put tourism at the center of efforts to develop the continent and to reduce poverty there. Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for just a little over one per cent of the world market share in the international travel and tourism industry. At the moment, most international tourists don?t consider traveling to Africa, but industry kingpins say the global financial crisis is resulting in international travelers looking to visit cheaper destinations.

?With 53 countries on the continent, Africa?s travel and investment opportunities are limitless. Now, more than ever, the governments of many African countries have dedicated resources to turn tourism into one of the motors driving their economic development,? says Edward Bergman, the director of the New York-based Africa Travel Association.

The ATA markets itself as the ?premier global travel association promoting tourism to Africa.? Members include African ministers of tourism and culture, national tourism boards, airlines, hotels, travel agents, tour operators and media.

?The organization is dedicated to bringing the world to Africa and Africa to the world,? Bergman says.

According to the ATA, the continent?s travel and tourism sector generated almost $90 billion last year, and predicts it?ll exceed $185 billion within the next seven years. Bergman says African tourism is expected to continue to grow at a high level in the near future - a view echoed by the president of the United States Corporate Council on Africa, Stephen Hayes.

?In addition to being home to some of the globe?s most spectacular world wonders, Africa offers natural landscapes of all kinds. With improving infrastructure and growing private sector and consumer purchasing power, Africa is poised to increase its world market share in tourism in the coming years,? says Hayes.

Fun in the sun no longer some travelers? priority

Brad Ford, a director at US-based GAP Adventures, one of the foremost adventure travel companies in the world, has traversed the globe but nurtures a ?special love? for Africa. Every year, he says, his firm organizes travel for about 65,000 international tourists to more than 100 countries.

Ford acknowledges that Africa currently represents only a ?small portion? of this travel because GAP Adventures ? like many international travel companies ? is ?very new? to the continent.

?We started in Africa four years ago, mainly in South Africa and East Africa. And now we?ve expanded over into 15 countries across Africa and project that Africa will be one of the biggest areas of growth and development for us over these next few years.?

Ford says the international tourism sector has a ?newfound confidence? in Africa and is increasingly willing to invest in the continent.

?There are still problems in some places, but in recent years we?ve seen lots of positive democratic reforms in Africa, a lot of encouraging signs that the continent is turning the corner,? he states.

A new faith in Africa among members of the tourism community, says Ford, is happening at the same time as burgeoning international interest in adventure travel.

?Now, more than ever before, people are searching for adventure, for meaningful experiences. They want to be active, to hike, to climb mountains, to stay with locals in villages. International travelers want less to spend all their time on beaches or in luxurious tented camps and hotels and more to experience the reality of a specific country,? Ford explains.

Bryan Kinkade, director of travel and tourism at National Geographic Adventure Magazine in the US, agrees.

?Americans in particular are looking beyond the resorts of the Caribbean and the capitals of Europe for their holidays, and there?s a good chance they?ll be considering the continent of Africa for their next vacation,? he says.

According to Kinkade, many Americans are looking to Africa ?with its deserts, mountains, rivers and seas? as a continent offering excellent chances for ?great adventure.?

He says one in four Americans took a vacation last year ?specifically to participate in an outdoor activity and spent almost 300 billion dollars.

?Adventure travel today is big business and a massive opportunity for selling travel to Africa. By most outlooks, adventure travel is the fastest growing sector of the travel market today. Americans are increasingly turning overseas for their holiday options at a record rate. Destinations like South Africa, Tanzania and Zambia are featuring at the top of their travel lists,? Kinkade states.

But Rina Paterno, the owner of an American tour company that specializes in travel to Africa, says many American travelers remain very interested in the continent for one major reason: the continent?s wildlife.

?Despite what?s being said about all the new trends in tourism, like adventure tourism and cultural tourism, many people still want the traditional African holiday, the safari,? she comments.

Paterno says she?s encouraged by the growing numbers of Americans making plans to visit African destinations, and adds that they?re expressing ?less concern? about safety and security issues.

?Africa is a lot less taboo (for American travelers) than it used to be?. They are doing (Mount) Kilimanjaro; they are doing Tanzania, Kenya, Maasai Mara (game park). The wildebeest migration is (still) a huge thing. South Africa, Cape Town. Those are the big destinations that we?focus on.?

Dr. Gaynelle Henderson Bailey is ATA vice-president and operates Henderson Associates, the first US travel company to pioneer group tours to Africa.

?We?ve been sending groups to Africa since 1957, since Ghana?s independence. Our tours have always been heritage tours. We focused initially on countries like Ghana and Senegal that clearly have the slave castles?. Now we?re sending people all over the continent of Africa,? Bailey enthuses.

She says growing numbers of African Americans, the descendants of Africans that were shipped from West Africa to the Americas centuries ago, are returning to places like Goree Island off Senegal?s coast to ?recover their past.?

?Goree Island was the middle of the African slave trade,? explains.

Aziz Gueye, the director of Senegal?s tourism office in North America. ?Africans were imprisoned here by European slave traders, before they were herded into ships and taken away forever?.?

Price and information

Brian Kinkade says a reason for heightened global interest in Africa as a good tourism destination is ?simply based on accessibility and costs. Access to the world has become faster, easier and cheaper.?

Many tourism experts say the international economic crisis, which is leading to widespread job losses and much less disposable income in people?s pockets, is leading to tourists looking to visit destinations that are much cheaper than those in Europe, for example.

Mark Walton, the CEO of the Africa Channel, an international satellite television station that focuses on events on the continent, says tourists are now considering visits to Africa ?more than ever before? because of the ?price factor.?

He says the quality of travel in Africa has improved a lot, while the costs associated with visiting more traditional destinations in Europe, for example, have increased dramatically.

?We have opportunities with Africa, because we know how expensive it is to go to Europe?. We know that there?s such variety on the continent of Africa that we can get Americans traveling (there) over and over again,? says Walton.

Novimbi Merriwether is the founder of Meticulous Tours, the first travel company in the US owned by a black South African. Since 1983 her firm has coordinated visits to various African destinations, including her home country and the entire southern African region, Ethiopia, Kenya and Ghana.

Merriwether is convinced that the main reason for the ?booming? interest in Africa among tourists is ?value for your money. Africa is much cheaper than Europe. In two weeks in Africa, you can see so much. You can visit South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Mozambique all at once. Four of five countries in a two-week period is no problem. You can?t do this if you visit Europe, unless you?re very rich,? she laughs.

Kinkade adds that up until recently, few global travel agencies offered detailed information about African destinations to clients, although more are now doing so. He also credits the Internet for ?slowly but surely? increasing knowledge of Africa.

?Information about the world, about its cultures and natural wonders, is now available at our fingertips. And all that?s raising consumers? comfort levels, piquing their curiosity and inspiring them to get out and visit these places (in Africa) first-hand.?

Stephen Hayes is confident that with all the effort that?s being made to establish Africa as a leading tourism destination, the continent will soon be ?at the top of the wish list? of international ? and especially American ? travelers.