An Eye on West Africa


Research from the World Travel & Tourism Council reveals that the global travel and tourism industry represents 9% of GDP and one out of 11 jobs. In 2012, there were just over one billion international tourist arrivals, and an estimated five to six billion domestic tourism arrivals.

But West Africa certainly isn’t getting its fair share, at least not of leisure travel. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation, just over 50% of international tourist arrivals were leisure travellers. But, in Lagos, Accra, Abidjan, Bamako and Ouagadougou, you’ll be hard pressed to find a traveller on vacation.

East Africa and a lot of southern Africa both have thriving leisure markets, based on their beach, safari and other products. But, West Africa also has those products in abundance – I once read that the safari product in the north of Benin was one of the best in the world. The beaches of The Gambia and Sierra Leone can rival the Caribbean, and Liberia has a surfing beach which that community rates quite highly.

Granted, The Gambia is a well-known winter sun destination, and the travel and tourism industry there, almost entirely leisure-oriented, accounts for 20% of GDP and almost 18% of total employment – more than double the global average. Cape Verde is another winter sun spot, with 44% of GDP and 39% of employment. Nigeria? Just 3% of GDP and one in 38 jobs. And that is almost entirely business-related travel.

Why the huge variation? Nigeria has beaches, game parks, mountains and festivals, and a great deal to offer leisure travellers. As do Cameroon, Ghana and others. So, why don’t these countries have more international vacationers?

One obstacle is certainly the visas required for visitors to many West African countries. They are expensive, difficult to obtain with unreasonable document requests, and have on-line payment systems that don’t work. When you consider that visas to enter most southern or east African countries are either not required or much cheaper and easier to obtain, it becomes clear why West Africa isn’t seeing its fair share of leisure visitors. In West Africa, Senegal and The Gambia don’t require visas for most nationals, and they attract vacationers in large numbers. Mali is also visa-free, and before the recent conflict also attracted vacationers.

Air access is also an issue. The Gambia and Senegal, and the tourist hotspots of east Africa, such as Zanzibar and Kenya, have charter flights in operation, with landing fees and other airport charges that do not discourage people from booking holidays. Package holiday makers aren’t the only tourists to these destinations, but the countries are competing with the Mediterranean, the Canary Island and others, and welcoming charter airlines attracts more visitors. Scheduled airlines charge fares that are prohibitive to the average vacationer, often because the capacity on the routes to the UK, France, Germany etc is limited to one airline, with no national carrier capable of servicing the route.

There is also a distinct the lack of destination marketing. Google Senegal, The Gambia and Cape Verde tourism, and you’ll find numerous booking channels. The same search for Ghana, Nigeria or Cameroon results in lots of information, but very few ways to book flights or hotel accommodation.

West Africa is not as far from Europe as Dubai, and about the same distance as southern Turkey, Cyprus and Egypt. Countries like The Gambia and Cape Verde have had great success in the European winter sun market. 

West Africa needs to do more to make its unique tourism products more accessible.

Trevor Ward
MD: W Hospitality Group