Tourism in West Africa: an economic, social and cultural opportunity

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by Maxime Weigert

Whereas tourism is acknowledged as a driver of socio-economic development and growth in Africa, as evidenced in the last African Tourism Monitor, the 2015 edition of the annual report on competitiveness in travel and tourism, released in early May by the World Economic Forum (WEF), points out that West Africa lags behind when it comes to the travel sector. The ten West African countries assessed in the report all appear in the bottom half of the ranking.[1] Cabo Verde, the top-ranked country from the region, ranks 86th out of 141. Guinea recorded the lowest score at 140th, securing the penultimate position in the overall ranking. The eight remaining West African countries are in the bottom quarter, among the least globally competitive countries in terms of tourism.

While the relevance of the index itself is a question for debate, this ranking reflects at least two realities in the region. First, there is still low attractiveness for West Africa as a destination for international tourism. Apart from the unique case of Cabo Verde, which has made tourism a priority, the region has few "tourist destinations." To date, only Ghana and Senegal have passed the significant threshold of one million international tourists. (Nigeria, which had passed the threshold in 2008, has fallen below since 2011.) In 2012, the region as a whole welcomed 4.5 million tourists, which generated US $3.2 billion in revenue. These figures represent respectively 14% of international arrivals and 13% of tourism revenues recorded in Sub-Saharan Africa this year, and 8% and 6% respectively of the African total (North Africa included).

Moreover, the WEF index reveals the unsuitability of tourism for countries in the region. Generally speaking, all of the requisite factors are lacking, first and foremost limited accessibility in terms of airline traffic. The region also reports shortages of hotels and other lodging, skilled staff, and inadequate service sector and production standards required for competing on the international travel industry market (in terms of hygiene, quality, safety). Security concerns, current or residual, compound these structural weaknesses, damaging the image of the entire region. Political frailty, health threats (malaria, Ebola), or even the threat of terrorism (Sahel, Nigeria) are some of the reputational challenges the region needs to address to increase its tourism competitivity.

However, at a time when the region is establishing solid foundations, when there is an ever-growing need for economic diversification, and when international tourism continues to expand globally – including in Africa – the region could seek to become relevant inside global tourist networks. Things are already changing. In 2014, West Africa was the second-largest proportion in the hotel chain development pipeline in Africa, with more than 13,500 new rooms planned (34.1% of the African total). Senegal has already shown its ambition, by setting the goal of attracting 3 million tourists by 2025, and so has Ghana, which recently adopted a comprehensive tourism development plan for 2013-2027. Guinea-Bissau has also made tourism a key focus of its recent year ten-year strategy plan. Other countries, including Côte d'Ivoire and Burkina Faso, might utilize the tourism sector, or its renewal, as a way to consolidate their transitions.

This is a timely opportunity for a region rich in natural and cultural endowments to showcase, and some countries are already well known for their traditions of hospitality. For example, Senegal’s "teranga" (hospitality) is often touted as an asset for attracting tourists. A number of models, such as extended-stay tourism, especially seaside tourism, could be developed and promoted on the international market. This model, which is already in place in Gambia and Senegal and could be adopted by Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire, provides spillover effects on the local economy and job creation through inter-firm linkages in the sector. A second segment with strong potential is that of business tourism, which accounts for one quarter of international tourism in Sub-Saharan Africa. The economic boom is attracting a growing number of investors, entrepreneurs and development financiers, who require places to gather and hold meetings. Other subsectors, such as cultural tourism and ecotourism, may also be harnessed for the fight against poverty in rural areas, as demonstrated by W National Park, which is jointly managed by Niger, Burkina Faso, Benin and Nigeria.

To make this tourism a reality, the countries of the region could rely on two major source markets. The first is that of the Northern countries, particularly in Europe, with which the non-tourist exchanges are already firmly established (airline agreements, trade, diaspora). The second is the South-South market of West Africa, which is growing thanks to the emergence of the upper middle classes in the region. In Ghana for example, more than a third of international tourists come from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) zone. This regional market could be organized based on the logic of complementarity rather than competition. The large and growing market of Nigeria could be the powerhouse of the system, with each country adding its specific and complementary tourist offer to the benefit of the region as a whole.

Countries that are candidates for tourism development must craft an integrated strategy, including general multi-sector aspects (business climate, energy, water, telecommunications) and strictly sectoral aspects (investments, regulations, training, facilities, mobility, promotion). This massive project should not be conceived of only as a simple economic opportunity. Rather, it carries with it significant cultural and civic dimensions, since tourism could contribute to the development and enhancement of local resources in the region (urban life, heritage, landscape, handicrafts). It would allow West Africa to strengthen its appeal to investors, diasporas, and other population flows it will witness in the coming years.

[1] Liberia, Guinea-Bissau, Benin, Togo and Niger were not included in the study due to insufficient data.


Ali Sekou - Niger 11/04/2018 20:41
This is a well written paper with some great suggestions. Thank you for sharing. Yes there are a lot to do in that regions to improve people's life through the travel and tourism industry.
Niger has a lot to offer especially tourism potentials.
Uamr Mustapha - Nigeria 16/03/2017 07:02
The motivative factors in west African economy in 18-19 centuries.
Ohene Obiri - Ghana 24/01/2017 00:37
Edu-informative piece. We will get there no matter how long it takes. And for some of us who are passionate about the growth of the tourism sector will push harder and never give up. Thank you very much.
Richmond - Ghana 09/01/2017 19:15
Interesting article. It just saved me. I found the statistics rather very useful. thanks
Burgess Houston - Liberia 08/01/2017 20:16
Liberia has recently launched the Liberia National Export Strategy on Tourism and since 2012 formulated the Liberia National National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan. Both these documents seem to be dormant. The TAL was instrumental regarding input of many of the recommendations. As public-private partnerships are essential to stimulating economic growth AfDB could approach the Government of Liberia and engage TAL and other stakeholders in the implementation of both documents. Liberia just needs the opportunity.
Melkamu Abdissa - Ethiopia 19/05/2016 18:30
Opportunity and challenges for tourism development in developing countries
What does opportunity mean?
What does challenge or constraint mean?
What the best strategies of mitigating barriers, challenges and contestants of tourism development?
Robert Travers - Côte d’Ivoire 09/09/2015 15:19
Good points and interesting statistics. With the Ebola crisis (hopefully) passing, perhaps AfDB should consider supporting tourism recovery in West Africa?


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