Africa’s Tourism Sector Can Learn from Asian Experience

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions


Africa continues to be seen as new territory for global tourism, yet it still is not even close to meeting its potential,according to a report by a South African think tank. In fact, many resorts and tourist areas are failing to fill up with visitors. This contrasts with the booming world tourism industry, which broke records in arrivals in 2011 (UNWTO).

Apart from South Africa, much of sub-Saharan Africa is the worst performing region for tourism in the world. Africa received 5.2 per cent of the world’s tourism – 40 million visitors – in 2010. Yet the continent as a whole has 15 per cent of the world’s population: a hint at the potential being missed.

Okavango Delta in Botswana (, reports Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper,has nearly empty luxury lodges and resorts and is offering heavy discounts to lure tourists in.

But the report believes there are two countries African nations can look to for lessons on how to tighten up their tourism offerings: Vietnam and Cambodia. It points out both these countries share similar challenges, including colonial legacies, war and conflict, poor quality skills and weak infrastructure. Both countries dramatically reversed their failures in a decade and now have booming tourism sectors creating jobs and bringing in wealth.

Africa suffers from negative publicity generated by media reporting about terrorist attacks on tourists across the continent and kidnappings by criminal gangs and pirates in East Africa. The so-called ‘Arab Spring’ upheavals in North Africa are also having an impact. The continent’s many infrastructure problems also limit its potential. These include unreliable power supplies, out-of-date airports, inadequate involvement of local populations in the benefits of tourism and the tourist economy, and poor awareness of attractions apart from the clichéd African “safari”.

The report is urging a re-think by all of Africa’s nations of their tourism strategies and the structure of their tourism sectors. In order for the tourism industry to grow and to thrive, greater focus is required and greater investment needed to ensure the facilities, attractions and experience matches what tourists would expect. And the report believes this matters a great deal because in tourism lies the solution to many of the continent’s high unemployment problems.

Tourism is one of the world’s largest industries and a great generator of wealth and jobs. But while it provides 5 per cent of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP), it only provides 2 per cent of Africa’s GDP.

Tourism in Africa is also heavily skewed to just a handful of countries. The bulk of tourists visit just four countries: Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and South Africa.

“This desultory record belies the natural advantages Africa has over other regions that have performed much better,in particular the continent’s extraordinary diversity – of wildlife, environment and people,” according to the report produced by the Brenthurst Foundation (, a think-tank in Johannesburg.

The paper is called ‘Unlocking Africa’s Tourism Potential: Lessons from Vietnam and Cambodia’ (

The Brenthurst Foundation researches new ideas and “innovative actions for strengthening Africa’s economic performance”.

Cambodia’s tourism industry grew by 17 per cent in 2010 and became the country’s second largest earner of foreign income. In Vietnam, tourism has grown by 11 per cent every year since 1995 and makes up 12 per cent of the country’s GDP.

The report isolated four key lessons that African tourism authorities should follow:

1) Help the private sector to expand what it offers to tourists, and make it more sophisticated, including ecotourism and maritime tourism.

2) Undertake aggressive international marketing campaigns (South Africa is a good example) and push hard their well-known tourism offerings, making them global icons. Also develop tourism hubs.

3) The tourism sector needs to professionalize by investing in skills training in tourism and hospitality.

4) Identify potential tourist markets and smooth the journey for them by streamlining obstacles like visas. They should also make a list of health and safety concerns tourists will have and address them. The report believes this strategy would go a long way to tackle the continent’s high unemployment levels.

“No continent stands to benefit more from the 21st century tourism boom than Africa,” the report claims.

Published: February 2012


1) World Tourism Organization: UNWTO is the United Nations agency responsible for the promotion of responsible,sustainable and universally accessible tourism.Website:

2) Vietnam Tourism: The national tourism administration of Vietnam. Website:

3) Tourism Cambodia: The official website for the tourism authority of Cambodia.Website:

4) Tourism and Poverty Reduction: Pathways to Prosperity by Jonathan Mitchell and Caroline Ashley, Publisher:Earthscan.Website:

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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