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Rethinking Tourism as a Pathway for Development

Tourism is considered one of the fastest-growing economic sectors. In 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, the sector contributed 10.4 per cent to global GDP and about 7 per cent of Africa’s GDP. This changed when the global pandemic hit, bringing with it unprecedented lockdowns and international travel restrictions. As a result, many tourism- dependent economies lost considerable revenues and millions of jobs. Tourism-dependent economies in Africa were not spared. After only three months of the pandemic, countries across the continent lost more than $55 billion in travel and tourism revenues. This had a huge impact on social spending and livelihoods.

Building resilience in the tourism sector is a critical pathway for African countries to build forward better and recover faster from crisis. ‘Rethinking Tourism’, the theme for this year’s World Tourism Day celebrated on 27 September is very timely. It highlights the importance of repositioning tourism in our society to harness its potential as a tool for inclusive growth and sustainable development.

Tourism Development to Transform Economies

Only a few African countries are at the forefront of sharing their culture, heritage, wildlife, environment, and natural resources through tourism. For many, tourism still conjures pictures of foreigners enjoying exotic destinations far removed from ordinary citizens. Local communities who are custodians of natural wealth and culture have failed to benefit from this kind of tourism. These communities are not equipped to engage the tourism industry as workers or suppliers. Stories abound of conflict between wildlife conservationists and local communities. This shows that the current tourism model is not sustainable.

Yet tourism development offers a significant opportunity to transform economies and create sustainable livelihoods. According to tourism sector experts, regions with higher domestic and intraregional demand are more resilient and bound to recover faster from crises like the COVID-19 pandemic. It is time to focus more on the domestic and regional tourism market as an engine of development. This will help to reverse the trend in most African countries where domestic tourism has been ignored in favour of international tourism that is susceptible to global disruptions.

Diversifying Africa’s tourism market and adding value to Africa’s natural assets is not only necessary but is long overdue.

Towards Sustainable, Profitable, and Inclusive Tourism

Growing Africa’s tourism market could build on numerous existing opportunities to protect natural wealth and promote unique locations and tourism experiences across Africa. In Ghana for instance, the Community Resource Management Areas (CREMA), supported by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), are already working to ensure sustainable use and management of natural resources. The CREMA model brings together communities with a common goal that ensures habitats are secured and allows members to benefit from the use of natural resources. This improves livelihoods and wellbeing. Integrating eco-tourism can help these communities to showcase their natural wealth. Similarly, the annual traditional festivals observed by different ethnic groups in the country provide a unique opportunity for sharing Ghana’s remarkable history and culture with tourists. These festivals are marked with music, dance, storytelling, and traditional sports as well as vibrant displays of traditional attire and jewellery. The events provide an opportunity to stimulate the local economy through sale of contemporary arts, handicrafts, local cuisines, and music.

To ensure sustainable tourism on the continent, there is need to prioritise and balance the need for environmental conservation, cultural preservation, meaningful community participation and equitable distribution of benefits among stakeholders. Sustainable practices like ecotourism are a good example of how to support community development by enhancing the benefits of maintaining natural systems through tourism.

Development Pathway

Looking to the future, working in three key areas could help unlock tourism in Africa to advance human development. These include:

Build community ownership and stewardship: Acknowledging the role of the community in stewardship of tourist resources including natural landscape and cultural sites reinforces a sense of pride in the community and helps to ensure more sustainable land use practices. Empowering local governments and traditional authorities will help to optimise this untapped opportunity to leverage environmental conservation in their regions to attract tourists.

Invest in local and community driven initiatives: Governments and tourism stakeholders need to shift from externally driven initiatives towards co-creating with local actors to develop tourism products and services. There is a need to go beyond community engagement to supporting community driven initiatives such as cottage industries like the Kente weavers, jewellery makers, potters, and sculptors. There is a tremendous opportunity to promote eco-resorts and community run enterprises.

Preserve and share traditional knowledge and culture:  Africa’s rich arts and culture is unique and must be preserved to be shared with the world. The development of cultural tourism products and services based on Africa’s diversity in film, music, dance, festivals, traditional sports and celebrations is a great opportunity to engage domestic tourists and those from other African countries. Using technology and digital media to promote cultural tourism can also help to keep Africa’s culture alive for generations to come.


Unlocking Africa’s tourism potential and enhancing its resilience and sustainability in the post-COVID era requires strategic investments in preserving natural assets, supporting community led initiatives and showcasing Africa’s rich heritage and culture. The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), coupled with Africa’s young, digital savvy population and growing middle class will drive the future of domestic and regional tourism in the continent. Now is the time to open more opportunities in the sector by engaging this next generation of tourists.

Source: UNDP