This article explores the potential post-COVID-19 challenges for African tourism recovery. While considering the inherent retrospective and contemporary challenges facing the continent, a multi-stakeholder nation-branding approach may be a panacea to the post-pandemic tourism recovery problem faced by the continent.
In 2019, the global travel and tourism sector represented 27.4 per cent of global services exports, generating upwards of US$9.2 trillion (10.4 per cent of global GDP), while creating one out of every four new employment opportunities globally and accounting for 334 million existing jobs (10.6 per cent of global employment). Worldwide revenue and job losses of up to US$4.5 trillion (-49.1 per cent) and 62 million (-18.5 per cent) in 2020, respectively, can be attributed to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, with Africa shedding 7.2 million travel and tourism jobs, costing the continent’s economy an estimated US$83 billion. However, it is essential to acknowledge that Africa’s post-COVID-19 tourism recovery is a multifaceted conundrum, as the continent must grapple with both retrospective and contemporary challenges.
Retrospectively, pre-COVID African tourism had its inherent challenges. For instance, notwithstanding that African tourism is extensively reliant on international tourism arrivals, one sobering fact is that in 2019, at the peak of global travel and tourism, the African continent only accounted for up to 5 per cent of global international tourism arrivals. Perhaps most concerning is Africa’s 5% market share, translating to just over 50 per cent of the continent’s total tourism receipts. That, combined with the world’s lowest domestic tourism receipts (49 per cent of total tourism receipts in Africa, compared to 64.9 per cent in Europe and Eurasia, 75.9 per cent in the Asia-Pacific and 80.4 per cent in the Americas regions) meant that the crisis-induced moratoriums on air travel and non-essential activities such as tourism effectively halved the continent’s tourism income. Consequently, due to decimated international tourism demand, the African continent experienced a disproportionately adverse negative economic impact (-49.2 per cent) on the continent’s tourism GDP contribution and employment contraction (-29.3 per cent)1.
The COVID-19 pandemic broadly represents the contemporary challenge that has exacerbated Africa’s competitiveness deficiencies and barriers to the sustainable development of African tourism. With conservative projections suggesting that international tourism will only recover to 2019 levels in 2023/4, the global tourism industry is transitioning into a domestic-tourism-driven pandemic response and recovery phase. Furthermore, buoyed by the development and rollout of vaccines and the proliferation of non-pharmaceutical interventions to mitigate the risk of infection, the notion of domestic-tourism-driven recovery is becoming increasingly feasible for many tourism destination countries as a precursor to international-tourism recovery. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented and requires innovative approaches to evaluating and managing travel behaviour in a risky global environment. A global crisis of the proportions of the COVID-19 pandemic underlines the importance and viability of a macro model that supersedes traditional microenvironment-oriented destination recovery
Whereby, the traditional model restricts its focus to the attractiveness of a tourism destination, while being deficient in considering external competitive forces that take into account the “halo effect” that a holistic branding effort could have on African tourism.
Why branding and why now?
Nation branding (NB) is a niche, multi-stakeholder perspective on the evaluation and management of the image, perception and positioning (awareness and reputation) of a place in the minds of multiple stakeholders, including tourists. Based on six dimensions (namely, governance, culture and heritage, immigration, people, tourism and exports), the dual purpose of NB is as an explanatory framework to evaluate the image of a place and the inherent perception associated with it, as well as a decision-support model that aids in the formulation of a value proposition that positively influences how a place is perceived by its various publics. As the worst health crisis since the Second World War, and the first pandemic of the post-digital era, the COVID-19 pandemic occurred in an unprecedented information-oriented environment rife with fact and subjective alternative fact-based nuances that have shaped and, in some cases, misshaped global opinions about countries and continents.
One of the African continent’s inherent challenges has been the notion of the “dark continent”. The Afro-pessimism that stems from this notion is grounded in the negative and often outdated misconceptions associated with the pervasiveness of war, disease and poverty on the continent. Thus, Afro-pessimism refers to the predominantly negative and subjective influence of Africa’s image deficit on its economic activity, including tourism. Africa’s response to the pandemic has, to an extent, exacerbated this notion of Africa. The wholesale corruption, initial vaccine shortages, followed by the subsequent poor implementation of vaccination programmes and vaccine apathy in countries such as South Africa, Nigeria and Sierra Leone have done little to assuage existing perceptions of the continent. Hence, a concerted NB-oriented approach to Africa tourism’s post-COVID-19 recovery may be the continent’s only panacea for tourism recovery.
The Brand Africa taxonomy
Three key NB dimensions are critical in the era of COVID-19.
Governance and Immigration
Due to the pandemic, national governments and their reflexive policies have unfortunately emerged as the most significant threat to African tourism and its recovery, second only to the coronavirus. Beyond the intrinsic sociopolitical instability that is endemic to the African continent, existential threats to African tourism are the arbitrary travel bans and “red listings” that have become synonymous with travel and tourism to the continent. For instance, in 2021, just before South Africa’s international tourism peak season (November–January), travel to and from South Africa and its neighbouring states was banned within 48 hours of South Africa announcing the discovery of the Omicron variant – albeit prematurely. Within two weeks, travel to and from Africa was banned by over 70 countries. These measures proved to be neither effective nor consequential to stemming the spread of new COVID-19 variants across the globe, since, as it later emerged, the variant was discovered in Europe weeks before South Africa’s discovery. Colourful epithets such as “Africa last in line for vaccines, first in line for travel bans” are pretty telling when it comes to the importance of governance and public policy in the era of COVID-19.
African people’s experiences with disease outbreaks such as the HIV/AIDS outbreaks of the early 1990s and the ever-present and ominous threat of the Ebola virus have tempered how Africans are perceived globally for the better part of the last two decades. The COVID-19 pandemic is, unfortunately, no exception. The xenophobia attached to the virus first gave rise to the anti-Asian sentiment that swept across the Western world. However, it appears as though this has shifted to anti-African sentiment. The “discovery” of the Omicron variant by South African scientists ignited a wave of travel bans against African countries and moratoriums on Africans and people who had visited certain African countries.
Based on experience from previous disease outbreaks, depending on the severity and pervasiveness of the health crisis, tourism recovery periods range between 10 and 34.9 months. As global tourism seeks to stabilise international travel and tourism, supra-national organisations such as the UNWTO have propagated the pivot towards domestic tourism as a stopgap measure for international tourism demand constraints. Most traditional tourist source markets, such as China, have done so with varying levels of success. However, while most major tourism destination countries engage in domestic-tourism-driven recovery, the African countries may not be as viable or sustainable as domestic tourism markets. Domestic tourism on the African continent is inhibited by a myriad of factors, including poor internal tourism marketing, African tourists’ penchant for outbound international travel and tourism, and the underlying endemic poverty on the continent. For instance, Sub-Saharan Africa’s (SSA) population of 1.1 billion people is spread across 46 countries, with some of the major tourism destination countries in SSA (Nigeria, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Kenya, Uganda, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe) being in the top 10 African nations that account for 75 per cent of the continent’s poorest people.
Post-COVID-19 tourism recovery for Africa?
Different stakeholders must collaborate to accelerate tourism recovery in Africa, so as to catalyse both global and domestic tourism in order to mitigate the challenges ahead. NB offers an integrative approach to Africa’s tourism recovery. The inextricable link between global events and the tourism sector suggests that Africa’s tourism recovery, post-pandemic, is predicated on several non-tourism-related multi-stakeholder issues both within and outside the purview of the continent itself. As the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated, beyond the imminent risk posed by such a crisis event, the response, or the lack of planning for it, may pose an even more significant threat to African tourism and its recovery. In the future, the following considerations may be made.
- Institutional and environmental weaknesses in African states dependent on tourism must be addressed as a matter of priority. Careful and considered proactive and reactive government policies and international community engagement will go a long way towards aiding the recovery of African tourism post-pandemic. This will require various stakeholders to engage in public diplomacy to protect both the citizens of a country and the integrity of other nations, while promoting safe and responsible tourism. This extends to vaccine diplomacy as a critical component of governance, which considers the plight of the African continent.
- There needs to be a paradigm shift in how the rest of the world perceives Africans to allay potential crisis-induced xenophobia. It is, therefore, imperative that Africans get vaccinated as a matter of civic duty to support initiatives to return to some semblance of ‘normalcy’. However, the media’s influence on vaccine uptake and hesitancy in Africa will play a critical role in promoting vaccination and communicating advances in this respect to the rest of the world with as much enthusiasm as adverse reports of the continent dictate.
- African tourism must reopen to international travellers once it is reasonable, safe and responsible to reopen. The African continent cannot afford a false start when reopening for international tourism. The proper health and safety measures need to be in place (contemporary “untact” tourism products and processes in line with global standards, implemented health and safety protocols such as socially distanced tourism activities, clearly articulated mask and sanitising mandates), based on a multi-sectoral approach across the spectrum of the African tourism value chain. This responsible reopening is also predicated on a concerted NB-oriented crisis communications strategy to effectively communicate the readiness of African destination countries to welcome tourists, including the measures in place to reassure them about their safety and security.
About the Author
Dr Tafadzwa Matiza is the Senior Lecturer in Tourism at the Tourism Research in Economics, Environs and Society (TREES) research unit of the North-West University, South Africa. Prior to being a full-time researcher, he was a lecturer in marketing management at various South African universities. To date, he has published several academic articles in various international journals.
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