West Africa has huge tourist potential, but factors such as poor transport, security concerns and the ebola virus have held it back. Concerted reforms are needed to boost the number of arrivals.
Whenever Godwin Ovat travels around his home state of Cross River in southern Nigeria, he sees a state that should be the leading tourism destination in the country.
Cross River is blessed with attractions: magnificent waterfalls, a slave history museum, the Obudu Mountain Resort where a visitor can ride cable cars or swim, and Cross River National Park, with 4000sq km of lowland rainforest where gorillas, chimpanzees and elephants roam.
But a combination of challenges including inadequate funding and investment, poor infrastructure and insecurity have conspired to erode tourism receipts in Nigeria.
The story of Cross River and much of Nigeria mirrors a regional problem across West Africa, where huge tourism potential is yet to be maximised.
“It’s saddening to see a state which is blessed with natural gifts and beautiful sites to behold and yet is not doing its best to take advantage of this opportunity,” says Ovat, founder of the local nonprofit Defining True Leadership.
Africa as a whole occupies only a small slice of the international tourism market, accounting for 62.9m (or about 5.1%) of the 1.2bn global tourism arrivals in 2016, according to the Africa Tourism Monitor compiled by the African Development Bank.
Tourism receipts are higher as a percentage of GDP in eastern and southern Africa (4.5% and 3% respectively) than in West Africa (2.1%).
The majority of visitors from Europe and the US flock to attractions in Egypt, Kenya, Morocco, South Africa and Tunisia.
Kenya is even making a sustained attempt to grab a greater share of the intra-African tourism market as the Kenyan Tourism board opens talks with Nigerian and Sierra Leonean industry representatives in a bid to encourage arrivals.
Rich in attractions
From The Gambia’s sandy Kotu Beach to Mali’s Bandiagara Cliff Villages and Ghana’s slave fortresses, with the right planning and investment the West African tourist sector could rake in millions more in foreign exchange earnings and create much-needed employment opportunities for the teeming youth population.
But poor-quality service, inadequate infrastructure, security concerns and the 2014-16 ebola outbreak have conspired to undermine the region’s potential.
A lack of transport links is the first major barrier. Across the region, major cities lack efficient connections, limiting regional mobility for residents and international travel.
Air transport is severely limited among countries in the region, with poor flight connections turning simple trips into circuitous journeys.
Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown is just an hour from Banjui, the capital of The Gambia, but only two direct flights a week serve the route.
In addition, connectivity has been made more difficult by regulatory hurdles – such as restrictive policies that limit air traffic rights – and the closure of regional national carriers, including Nigeria Airways and Ghana Airways.
Insecurity and political crises have also combined to frustrate tourism’s potential in West Africa.
Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Nigeria are grappling with Islamist and rebel insurgencies, prompting negative international headlines and travel warnings from wealthy nations.
Terrorist attacks in Mali saw the number of arrivals from Europe fall from 71,000 in 2014 to 36,000 in 2015.
In The Gambia, a popular destination for beach-going Europeans where tourism accounts for around 20% of GDP, hotel occupancy plummeted during a 2017 power struggle emanating from then-leader Yahya Jammeh’s rejection of election results.
The ebola virus buffeted the tourism industry, especially in West Africa.
A report by the London-headquartered World Travel and Tourism Council found that tourist arrivals in Sierra Leone dropped by 50% from 2013 to 2014.
The report estimated a loss of 0.9% of GDP in Guinea and 1.6% in Sierra Leone from the ebola outbreak as tourists avoided the region.
Despite these challenges, West African nations still have a chance to grab a larger share of international tourism receipts.
Some countries are already putting in place ambitious plans to boost the sector.
Guinea-Bissau, Senegal and Ghana have all taken to tourism to rejuvenate their economies, each creating long-term plans to consolidate or revive the industry.
In Senegal, tourism is one of the strategic sectors in the Emerging Senegal Plan (ESP), launched in 2013 to position the country as an emerging economy by 2035.
By 2015, Senegalese authorities had made reforms to the tourism sector, including creating a new national tourism agency and removing visa fees.
In 2017, the country had 1.36m visitors compared to 962,000 in 2012, and it is hoping to increase this figure to 3m visitors in the next four years.
Ghana’s 15-year strategy hopes to increase the number of arrivals from 1m to 8m annually by 2027 by marketing Ghana as a tourist destination, improving data-gathering systems, expanding tourism infrastructure and internal flights, improving highways, electricity and water supplies and opening up to visitors from new markets.
Enabling increased private investment in the sector is crucial to improving infrastructure and marketing destinations to an international audience.
Some government incentives are helping to attract developers. In The Gambia, the government offers investors free land if developers build hotels in designed areas, and gives investors a 10-year tax holiday if they invest above a $250,000 threshold.
But biddings for prime tourist land for hotel and leisure developments are too often uncompetitive and opaque, driving away leading international hotel groups.
Governments must also boost marketing spend and introduce visa reforms to encourage tourists.
The World Tourism Organisation predicts that the number of arrivals in Africa will more than double to 134m by 2030, but if West African nations are to grab their share, policymakers and industry representatives need to turn their plans into reality through concerted reforms.