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Travel in Africa

Is One of the Last Frontiers of Global Tourism as Volatile as Ever?

The diverse continent of Africa is one of the last frontiers of global tourism. While travelers can follow a well-developed tourist trail in most other continents, travel in Africa is often perceived as an adventure in many countries. The continent has an unimaginably rich cultural heritage and fascinating ecosystem, but, with rare exceptions such as South Africa, the tourism infrastructure remains poorly developed, and travelers in many parts of Africa still need a strong sense of adventure and courage. What concerns many travelers interested in visiting Africa is the fact that those of us who do not reside on the African continent hear nothing but bad news about this vast and varied assortment of countries. We hear of the kidnappings of tourists, civil war, piracy, violence, human rights abuses, tribal conflicts, economic collapse, and terrorist attacks. Sudan, Nigeria, Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe, and South Africa have all made the headlines this past year with such frightening news.

Eleven foreign tourists were kidnapped in a remote desert in Ethiopia in March 2007 and later freed by Egyptian and Sudanese commandos. In Kenya, over 1,000 people died during clashes after disputed elections in November 2007. Off the coast of Somalia, pirates are no longer just targeting cargo ships but have also captured several yachts in 2008—and have demanded high ransoms. In September 2008 eleven tourists were kidnapped while on a safari in a remote southern region of Egypt. Xenophobic attacks on African immigrants in South Africa from poor neighboring countries have resulted in numerous deaths, and crime against tourists is rising. Terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists have also increased drastically since 9-11, especially in Northern Africa, with the wars spreading from Libya to Mali and beyond.

In response, many Western governments have issued travel warnings for many African countries, advising their citizens not to travel there or to certain regions. A rising crime rate against tourists is one of the major concerns, but tribal conflicts, terrorism, and civil war also pose serious risks, often in border regions with unstable neighboring countries. West Africa has the lowest number of African countries with travel warnings from Western governments. Of the region’s sixteen countries, only Mauritania, Guinea, Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire, and Nigeria, are considered dangerous or partly dangerous for foreign travelers. In other parts of Africa, Botswana, Madagascar, Namibia, and Malawi are considered fairly safe, but most other African countries have at least an elevated and sometimes very high security risk for foreign travelers.

Faced with these bleak assessments from their governments and with discouraging media reports, it is not surprising that many travelers wonder if it is worth taking the risk of visiting Africa. But travelers interested in Africa should be aware that the travel advisories and news we hear only tell part of the story. Ethnic conflict, political instability, civil unrest and violence are no doubt serious threats to travelers, but there are many places in Africa that are peaceful and relatively stable. We need to remind ourselves that a safe and successful trip depends to a large degree on being well-informed, taking safety precautions and choosing our travel destination and itinerary very carefully.

The Challenges of Tourism in Africa

Traditionally, mining, oil, and other commodities accounted for the largest percentage of foreign currency earnings in Africa. Despite its wealth in natural resources, Africa remains the least developed and poorest continent, with over half of the population living on less than US$1 a day. Over the past decade tourism has become an increasingly important sector of Africa’s economy, surpassing traditional sources of income such as mining, natural resources, and agricultural products. A growing number of African countries are beginning to recognize tourism as Africa’s best chance to overcome poverty and provide at least a basic standard of living to its citizens. Countries such as Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Uganda, and Rwanda, increasingly rely on tourism for their foreign currency earnings, and the growing tourism industry has brought economic development and stability to many impoverished areas.

Over the past two decades however, it has become clear that tourism in Africa is volatile and easily influenced by political crises, armed conflict and terrorist attacks, which can have a disastrous effect on local tourism earnings. During the 1990s Egypt suffered from a number on terrorist attacks on tourists, which seriously hurt the tourism sector. Since 2004 there have been six more incidents, most recently in September 2008, when eleven tourists were kidnapped. In Mauritania, terrorist attacks linked to a group affiliated with Al-Qaeda, have led to a steep decline in tourism in 2008. The attack on a cruise ship in November 2005 off the coast of Somalia sent East Africa’s tourism into a slump, especially in Kenya, East Africa’s most popular tourist destination. Just as Kenya’s tourism sector was beginning to recover, violence in the aftermath of the elections in November 2007 led to another steep downturn in the number of foreign tourists. Civil unrest and a growing crime rate against tourists are also affecting tourism in South Africa, which has become increasingly dependent on tourism and is preparing to host the first Soccer World Cup on the African continent in 2010. Zimbabwe was one of Africa’s most popular tourist destinations only a decade ago, but a steep economic downturn and civil unrest have kept foreign travelers away for a number of years now.

Positive Developments

Despite the many problems facing this vast continent, some countries are moving toward greater prosperity and stability, and tourism plays an important role in this development. Tourism cannot be a panacea for Africa’s ethnic, social, and economic problems, but with the help of international aid organizations, tourism development is making significant advances. There are many programs and efforts underway all across Africa to expand the local infrastructure and promote tourism development. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the African Development Bank Group, and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) are providing training seminars, research, analyses, and policy advice for tourism development. These organizations also finance projects all across Africa that focus on local infrastructure projects, such as power generation, drinking water systems, road and railway construction, as well as ecotourism, environmental preservation, and sustainable development. These projects have a significant impact on improving the lives of the local people in areas enduring widespread poverty and underdevelopment.

Considering the widespread positive impact of tourism on Africa’s development, visiting Africa becomes much more than selecting a country to have a great vacation. Every visitor makes a small contribution to the development of the country they visit, and their travel expenses provide a much-needed source of income and local revenue in regions plagued by poverty and underdevelopment. But traveling on a continent affected by so many social and political problems is a challenge. If you are interested in visiting Africa, you need to get past the sound bites and stories that make the news headlines, and investigate on your own, where Africa, this vast and diverse continent, stands today.

For More Info

Transitions Abroad has compiled a number of useful resources which are listed below:

For current travel advisories, check out these government websites:

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