Unique attractions lift Africa’s hospitality industry

Analysis in brief: As Africa’s hospitality industry welcomes foreign visitors in record numbers, contemporary trends are directing future tourism growth. Egypt and South Africa remain top tourist destinations, staying at the forefront of holiday innovations.

Most major African economies host annual tourism conventions. These can be government sponsored like Africa’s Travel Indaba held each May in ocean-side holiday-destination Durban, South Africa, or they are presented by the private hospitality industry itself, such as the African Hospitality Investment Forum that concluded in Windhoek, Namibia, on 27 June 2024. The common factor that has threaded through all the tourism conventions in 2024 has been optimism from rising tourism numbers, including overseas visitors, attendance of attractions and overall tourism revenue. At these conferences, trends are noted, and the means to exploit these trends are presented. With few exceptions, the dark days of the Covid-19 pandemic are history, and companies that did not survive the tourism industry’s long closure are reportedly regrouping to form new enterprises.

Most overseas visitors still choose Egypt as their primary destination, drawn by the country’s antiquities, just as they have for the last century when ship and air travel made Africa accessible to tourists. North Africa’s beaches remain popular with Europeans too, while Sub-Saharan Africa is regaining traction as safety and security measures are increasingly prioritised to protect and reassure tourists. For instance, it has been 30 years since South Africa’s international isolation ceased, and the country began actively promoting tourism through global marketing campaigns. Although the Cape to Cairo Highway is still under development, the Cape to Cairo tourism paradigm, inspired by the successes of Egypt and South Africa in the hospitality industry, now serves as a blueprint for other African countries.

World Tourism 2023
The African region tourism growth is impressive but still lags behind the world’s established tourism regions
Image courtesy: World Travel and Tourism Council

Statistics herald good news

Africa’s travel and tourism market continent-wide is projected to reach revenues of US$24.5 billion in 2024. Through to 2028, the annual growth of the hospitality industry is estimated at 5%, reaching revenues of US$30 billion. The industry’s principal money-makers are hotels, whose revenues are projected to be US$ 12 billion in 2024, nearly half of the entire hospitality industry’s income for the year. By 2030, Africa’s hotels will host 120 million visitors.

Egypt will see a record 15 million tourists in 2024. Local hospitality industry officials have noted the concerted efforts of Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities and the private industry to expand tourism opportunities. Both public and private tourism players have extensively and expertly employed social media to reach the world with announcements of new offerings. Monthly and sometimes weekly bulletins are posted about a new ancient tomb discovery or excavated site being made accessible to the public for the first time. Made optimistic by consistently increasing tourism numbers, industry officials forecast that, by 2030, Egypt will have the potential to increase its present-day visitor numbers to 60 million.

South Africa has diverse cultures, sophisticated museums and entertainment selections. There are also a variety of game parks and nature reserves to see African wildlife, as well as many environments to lure people outdoors, from beaches to mountains and deserts to river rapids. Although many of these environments are available in other African countries, South Africa’s tourism growth is due in part to a concerted effort to entice intra-Africa travellers. Tourists arriving from the rest of the African continent between January and March 2024 represented three-quarters (74.5%) of all visitors, approximately 2.4 million people, which was an increase of 15% from the same months in 2023: That commendable growth resulted from a November 2023 deal between Accra and Pretoria that ended tourism visas for Ghanaians visiting South Africa.

Visitors to South-Africa 2023
Visitors to South Africa in 2023
Source: Statistics South Africa

In 2023, of the 8.5 million foreign visitors to South Africa, 6.4 million were from the African continent. Although South Africa was their primary destination, the country was used as a hub by many visitors to see surrounding nations like Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe, whose hospitality industries recorded upward growth in 2023. The year 2024 has thus far seen higher overseas visitor numbers in the region, with American tourists up by 12% from 2023, European tourists up 9% and the UK up 5%, making up 17% of the country’s foreign tourists. Asian tourists to the country increased by 25%, with tourists from China and India in particular increasing by 82% – figures the hospitality industry describes as “amazing” and “massive.”

Noting trends to ensure hospitality industry growth

The rise in Africa’s tourism fortunes is not geographically uniform. Sudan’s ancient pyramids are among Africa’s undiscovered treasures but remain unnoticed. The rainforests of the Democratic Republic of Congo may host rare gorillas but are not visited by foreigners. This is because the primary trend in tourism is towards safety. The most Googled question about any African country is, “How safe is it?” Unlike the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan, countries that avoid conflict and can ensure visitors’ safety are chosen as holiday destinations. A concomitant trend is tourism infrastructure growth, which is only possible in politically stable countries, allowing for more options for accommodation and attractions made accessible by a working transportation system. Another perennial trend is the effect of a thriving national hospitality sector on a country’s economy. South Africa’s tourism industry created 1.3 million jobs in 2023, which was nearly 9% of all jobs, and contributed nearly 7% to the country’s GDP. In 1994, the figure was 2%.

Other trends are recent, which hospitality industry players pay close attention to. Because most bookings are made online, where direct client-to-company representative communication is had through chat box applications, it is easier to track consumer preferences. One preference of the contemporary traveller is for experiences that are unique and authentic. Africa offers these in both its human cultures and wildlife. As one industry report stated, “Tourists are drawn to the diverse landscapes, wildlife, and rich cultural heritage that the continent has to offer.” Another interest of foreign visitors is attractions that are sustainable and environmentally friendly. Africa’s hospitality industry has responded by partnering local communities, by cutting carbon emissions and by introducing green facilities, such as water recycling and solar-generated electricity. As a partnership example, South Africa has recently financed a US$65 million Tourism Equity Fund to support emerging, community-based tourism enterprises.

Deeper into Africa, safaris remain the primary tourism draw to Kenya and Tanzania and increasingly to Botswana too. The trend in the last two years has been sightseeing and wildlife viewing vehicles, which are electric or use non-fossil fuel propellant systems. A listing of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites is a lucrative tourism advantage as well. Culture and historical tourism remain a niche market, but it is growing outside of Egypt. Tourists excited to see and learn about both physical and non-tangible (such as music) cultural attractions will enquire about and book tours to these places and cultural assets.

To continue such upward growth, encumbrances to tourism must be addressed as part of immigration policy reform, such as the high cost of intra-Africa air travel and stringent visa requirements. These issues are well known to the hospitality industry and featured in many discussions at African tourism conferences in 2024. There is the potential for these challenges to be resolved as the African Continental Free Trade Area continues to be developed.

Uganda hikers
Intra-Africa tourism is a developing hospitality niche, facilitated and encouraged by the African Continental Free Trade treaties and movement. Here hikers from around East Africa ascend Uganda’s Mount Muhavula.
Image courtesy: Tebandeke Andrew/WikiCommons

The critical points:

  • Africa has returned to and surpassed pre-Covid 19 tourism levels in both visitor numbers and revenues, with Egypt and South Africa drawing the most tourists
  • Excluded from the continent’s hospitality industry growth are areas of conflict where visitors’ safety is problematic
  • Trends like tourist preferences for unique natural and authentic cultural experiences are being noted and fulfilled by the continent’s hospitality industry