African Tourism Leads the World and Brings New Opportunities

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions


Tourism around the world is growing rapidly again after the setbacks caused by the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Tourism is also finally acknowledging Africa – home to 888 million people (2005, UN) – and where 46 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s people live on less than US$1 a day. Led by Kenya and South Africa, the continent has come out on top in world tourism growth according to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) ( While global tourism is forecast to grow by four percent in 2007, Africa as a whole enjoyed growth of 10.6 percent in 2006.

Tourism, because it is a labour intensive industry, is seen as a great way to both reduce poverty and meet all the Millennium Development Goals. It favours small scale businesses, it is decentralized and can diversify regional economies, it is relatively non-polluting and can contribute to the conservation and promotion of natural and cultural heritage, and most importantly it can act as a catalyst for kick-starting other sectors of the economy.

Tourism is now generally recognized to be one of the largest industries-if not the largest-in the world. It has grown rapidly and almost continuously over the past 20 years, and is now one of the world’s most significant sources of employment and of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Tourism particularly benefits the economies of developing countries, where most of the sector’s new tourism jobs and businesses are being created. This rapid growth has encouraged many developing nations to view tourism as key to promoting economic growth, and global development assistance agencies see it as having real potential to help achieve many of their own development goals.

Tourism provides opportunities for diversifying local economies and promoting formation of micro and small enterprises, many of them women-owned. These enterprises promote better lives for poor entrepreneurs, especially in rural areas where there may be few other livelihood options. Tourism is generally labor-intensive and it tends to employ relatively higher proportions of women and young people than most other sectors. Tourism introduces technology and basic infrastructure, and strengthens linkages with the outside world. Well-planned and -implemented tourism projects can improve local governance, natural resources management, biodiversity conservation and other important development goals.

Within Africa, sub-Saharan Africa led the way with 12.6 percent growth. The countries benefiting the most included Kenya, South Africa, Mozambique, Swaziland and the Seychelles. Kenya received almost a million tourists in 2006, and earned US $857 million in revenue.

Kenya’s success rests on the fact it set aside 10 percent of the country for wildlife and biodiversity conservation. The majority of its tourists come to see the ‘big five’ – elephant, rhino, lion, buffalo, and leopard. Tourism currently employs 11 percent of the country’s workforce.

In October 2004 the World Tourism Organization released the Washington Declaration on Tourism as a Sustainable Development Strategy. Governments, international aid agencies, and the world’s leading universities agreed to make sustainable tourism development a top priority in their strategies to reduce poverty and meet other MDGs.

Aid agencies like USAID have targeted women for micro-funding for tourism projects. They have been able to help women start businesses making crafts in Tanzania and Botswana. The UK’s DfID helped Toni Shina from the Cape Town-based The Backpack to become a fair trade business. “Fair Trade Tourism South Africa recognises our commitment to uplifting our staff and community, and our utilisation of local service providers,” she said. “As a business we also have a strong and positive attitude to working with and supporting staff who are affected by HIV and Aids and we abide strongly with required labour and legal standards.”

And the fair trade concept is getting greater recognition. In a recent survey of the local tourism industry in South Africa, half recognised the Fair Trade in Tourism South Africa brand.

On the other hand, the scale of missed opportunities is illuminated in Rwanda. A consultant on a tourism management plan for the Volcano National Park, Edwin Sabuhoro, is urging communities living nearby to embrace eco-tourism and cash in on the tourists visiting nearby gorillas.

“According to our research,” he told Kigali’s The New Times, “some tourists say they carry their money back to their countries because they can’t find what to spend on.” And he pointed out the fate of the gorillas were directly linked to the poverty of the community: poachers would not be stopped if the community remained poor and had no other source of income.

How popular Africa has become is exemplified by Ethiopia’s rise into the top ten travel destinations for 2007, according to travel guide specialist Frommer’s. According to the guide, “Ethiopia has finally emerged out of the shadows caused by years of political strife, economic hardship and famine. The improved infrastructure has made travelling in Ethiopia increasingly popular, especially among independent-minded travellers and those seeking adventure.”

Another country, Tanzania, is targeting tourism as a key growth area. The country is trumpeting its peaceful and stable status and low-crime to attract tourists.

Published: March 2014


Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator. 

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© David South Consulting 2022

By David South Consulting

David South Consulting is an international development media and consulting service. Designing human development and health. Editor and writer of Southern Innovator.



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