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The Long Road to African Tourism Recovery

The Covid-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on the tourism industry in 2020, but this year a slow vaccine rollout and new variants means it will take a while to recover to pre-pandemic levels.

The year 2020 has been the worst on record for global travel tourism, the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) said in a report published earlier this year. The UNWTO says that one billion fewer international tourists travelled globally in 2020, with Africa suffering a 75% fall in international tourist numbers. While many countries had not yet imposed travel restrictions in the first quarter of 2020, the world welcomed 180 million fewer international arrivals in the first quarter (January to March) of 2021 compared with a year earlier.

The number of international tourists to Africa plummeted by 81% in that same period.

As a result, Africa remains high as a priority region for the UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili. In a bid to focus on tourism to the continent, Africa will this year celebrate two major UNWTO events; namely, the official celebrations of the World Tourism Day in Côte d’Ivoire on September 27, and the 24th UNWTO General Assembly in Morocco a few weeks later.

At a UNWTO Brand Africa Summit in Windhoek, Namibia on June 17, African ministers agreed in a communique—known as the Windhoek Pledge—to work together to reinvigorate the tourism industry on the continent.

“African destinations must take the lead in celebrating and promoting the continent’s vibrant culture, youthful energy and entrepreneur spirit, and its rich gastronomy,” Pololikashvili said.

Member States unanimously endorsed the Windhoek Pledge on Advocating Brand Africa: “UNWTO and its members will also work with the African Union and the private sector to promote the continent to new global audiences globally positive, people-centered storytelling and effective branding,” the UNWTO said in the communique.

This is expected to strengthen partnerships with the media as a priority so that African tourism stories could be showcased to the world, thus reaching new and diverse tourism markets.

New Mutations Threaten Recovery

But as the different mutations of the Covid-19 virus have now taken on characters in a Greek tragedy (they’re receiving Greek letters as nomenclature), tourism operators say Delta is currently disrupting their plans to re-open and move further along the long road of recovery. And this also threatens recovery in Africa.

Some countries, such as Australia and Malaysia have reinforced lockdowns in major cities, while Israel, which has a very high vaccination rate, shows the hurdles the industry faces as it announced on June 23 that people indoors must wear masks and that it would modify its reopening travel schedule.

Vaccinated tourists were originally supposed to be allowed into the country starting July 1. This was announced in a tourism recovery plan that now looks to be on hold.

The decision by Israeli authorities may trigger a similar response in other tourism destinations around the world. It may increase restrictions for arriving tourists, despite the assumption that vaccination is the golden key for the travel and tourism industry.

On June 24, popular tourist destination Portugal said that 70% of its new infections were due to the Delta variant, and announced shutting down the capital Lisbon just a month after opening up for tourism travel. The authorities said that they would impose stricter restrictions in Lisbon and popular tourism destination Albufeira fearing a blow to tourism recovery.

The good news is that there are baby steps being taken currently in terms of the global tourism industry as people are keen to get out and explore, but these are still very tentative. Initially, this will mostly be domestic tourism, but that will ensure that many tourism establishments survive to welcome international travellers once the new variants are brought under control.

In Africa, one challenge that will need to be overcome to boost continental tourism is that travellers will require easier issuing of travel visas.

While significant visa facilitation improvements have taken place over the past decade, visa facilitation still needs to be a priority for African countries. This is particularly important to promote regional travel as the recovery of international tourism will be a long road. This means member countries should implement the Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) for free movement of goods and services, which includes the acceptance of the African Union passport.

This would entail more collaborative efforts to address the lack of harmonised health and travel protocols across the continent and beyond, especially during and post-pandemic crises to reassure tourists and build traveller confidence.

France, South Africa and the World Health Organization signed an agreement on technology transfer last month to create Africa’s first independent COVID-19 vaccine production hubs.

This comes on the heels of data which shows that Africa has only vaccinated 3 percent of the continent’s population, compared with 67 percent in North America and 31 percent in Asia. Meanwhile, the European Union (EU) is holding enough stock to provide almost seven vaccines per person, the UK eight and the United States five. The lack of access to these vaccinations in Africa is not due to lack of trying, however. When African governments tried to procure vaccines on the open market, they found themselves at the back of the line as stronger economies bought more than they needed.

Bringing African Tourism Sectors Together

Destinations all over the world will be vying for tourists as countries emerge from the lockdowns imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic. In that respect, Africa may have an advantage, as the post-lockdown travel trends could include the desire for outdoor trips, uncrowded destinations and personal travel bubbles with a focus on physical and mental health and wellness, including for instance quiet spaces where the sounds of nature can be heard again – such as the lion’s roar, the chirping of birds and insects, or the sound of antelopes walking through elephant grass.

But the collapse in international tourism has meant that African tourism had to switch to promoting domestic tourism.

In the case of Namibia, for example, domestic tourists accounted for two-thirds of the hospitality sector’s occupancy rates in the first quarter of 2021 compared with only one-third in the same period a year earlier. Given the small size of its domestic population of only 2.5 million, however, this meant that the total number of beds sold in Namibia dropped by 53% compared with the first quarter of 2020.

The latest data from Namibia’s hospitality association showed that bed occupancy in the first quarter of 2021 barely reached 17% compared with 27.2% in the first quarter of 2020. On a seasonal basis, the first quarter tends to be muted with respect to international travel and tourism. Room and bed occupancy rates during this time are often associated with people travelling for business or work conferences. However, even for business travellers, bed occupancy rates are down to 13% in the first quarter of 2021 as more people work from home and practice social distancing compared with 17% in the same period in 2020.

To fill up empty rooms, tourism establishments are discounting their rack rates and Toshari Lodge, which is close to the Etosha National Park in Namibia, for instance, has dropped their rack of N$ 1,099 ($75) per person sharing for a standard room to only N$ 600 ($40) for the high season period of July 1 to November 20. This is not an isolated instance as many establishments are offering half price specials so that they can survive until international tourism recovers.

But is there light at the end of the tunnel?

Alain St.Ange, President of the African Tourism Board and former Tourism Minister of the Seychelles, says that Africa—with all the possibilities and an array of ‘Unique Selling Points’—is seen as the next success story in attracting tourists to the continent. But it does have many obstacles to overcome; some are from beyond the borders of the continent and others are man-made by ourselves and for ourselves.

“[The] Covid-19 pandemic brought reality to the continent as it did for the whole wide world. Vaccines were introduced and Africa struggled to get an adequate supply to ensure that Africans were better prepared to protect itself and in order to play its part to stop the continued propagation of the pandemic through mutations and new variants which in turn will only extend the Covid-19 pandemic across the world,” he told The Cairo Review.

He pointed out that Africa was unprepared for such a pandemic which would cripple its tourism industry. Many of the 54 nations that make up the continent were cash-strapped and could not fight for their fair share of the needed vaccines. Africa was lucky to be resilient as many of its leaders and professionals rallied to offer assistance through the HOPE Project of its African Tourism Board, which is a roadmap for economic growth and a tourism recovery for those countries which depend on the industry for revenue. The project was created to bring African tourism sectors together to face the crisis as one. and to empower local solutions according to each country’s specific needs.

This included the involvement of Dr. Taleb Rifai, the former Secretary-General of the World Tourism Organization, who joined the HOPE project as the Patron of the Organisation.

The HOPE Project also saw many sitting ministers, former tourism ministers and industry leaders working together to guide and to be prepared for Africa to start doing the one needed thing—rewrite its own narrative.

“Friends from around the world rallied as well and press personalities were seen to be by the side of Africa at a time when Africa needed its children to be together working for their motherland,” St.Ange added.

He warned, however, that it would be a long road to recovery and there would be occasions when the continent would take two steps forward and then have to take one step back.

Like most of the world, the situation on the ground is seeing a light at the end of the tunnel with many countries announcing an end to lockdowns and their readiness to accept foreign tourists.

But that optimism disappears the next day as a new surge of Covid is seen to be creating havoc in country after country. The new Delta variant has now spread to 92 countries, for example.

“It is clear that the world must come together and tackle Covid as one. The richest countries and leaders need to take care of their own, but see at the same time that one new Covid variant mutating on our continent or elsewhere will prologue to the disruption of the last two years,” St.Ange says.

The slow vaccine rollout in Africa and the hesitancy of international tourists to venture outside their own country lest they be subjected to quarantine restrictions on their return as has happened to UK tourists, will mean that it will be a long road to recovery for African tourism. There is no magic silver bullet such as an international vaccine passport that can shorten this process.

In the meantime, Africa must look inward for homegrown solutions. It must call on its very own to rally forces and “to put square pegs in square holes and round pegs in round holes”.

“The time is now and yes it can be done,” he says.

Source: https://www.thecairoreview.com/