Rick Taylor, CEO of The Business Tourism Company.

While Africa’s travel and tourism sector was full of opportunities and hope pre-COVID-19, the continent took a serious hit with the pandemic. But the pandemic and its many cascading impacts needn’t define the economic trajectory of the continent.

Referring to this year as a ‘hiatus’, Rick Taylor, CEO of The Business Tourism Company, believes that, through thoughtful investment, Africa is still on course to deliver on the Agenda 2063 vision for ‘An integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens, representing a dynamic force in the international arena’.

To discuss why and how investing in Africa’s tourism value chain now will help to right this course and revive African economies, Taylor was recently joined by a panel of leading experts in one of Africa Travel Week’s recent virtual sessions in partnership with Invest Africa.

Public-private partnerships

While the fiscal position of African nations varies greatly across the continent, most governments have provided critical support to their people during this time by increasing social spending (e.g. grants, unemployment, subsidised lending, latent tax collection and, in some cases, tax cuts).

However, by and large, there is little fiscal capacity to oversee investment-driven recovery in Africa. This makes the role of the private sector and its participation in investment ever more important.

Elcia Grandcourt, Regional Director Africa Department at UNWTO, emphasises tourism’s interconnectedness and the need for collaboration between private and public stakeholders across sectors – from aviation to environment to immigration. “Central to unlocking the potential of tourism in Africa is the joining of hands of partners that share a fundamental confidence in and commitment to tourism on the continent,” she says.

Air access and infrastructure initiatives in particular call for strong public-private partnerships. Private participation in these types of large, ‘real asset’ investments can significantly change the economic landscape of a country and have long-term impacts on the tourism sector.

In this regard, Ethiopian Airlines is the national flag carrier to watch. Already Africa’s largest airline by any measure – firmly outpacing regional competitors in revenue, passengers, fleet and destinations –  in 2018 the Ethiopian government announced plans to cede a minority stake in the airline to private, foreign investors, along with liberalising several other economic sectors. This policy shift, brought about to help sustain economic growth and boost exports, is certain to strengthen Addis Ababa as a regional hub for tourism and MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences, and exhibitions).

The rise of MICE

The MICE industry, already well developed in South Africa, is beginning to mushroom in the rest of the continent. MICE and corporate travel in Africa encourage knowledge exchange and enhance skills development – often having a reciprocal effect on stimulating foreign investment.

Taylor speaks of East Africa as the next market-ready region for MICE. Convention centres in Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia are being refurbished, while new ones are being built. And in 2018, Kigali was ranked the #2 city in Africa by the International Congress and Convention Association, the global meetings industry network.

As these countries and others across Africa begin to formalise their MICE strategies and scale up their national convention bureaus, investment opportunities abound. As Taylor puts it, development of the MICE sector can fire up the economic piston, to help drive Africa out of COVID-19 and beyond.

Moving sustainable tourism from niche to norm

2020 has sparked new dialogue about transformation – in our institutions, corporations, and society at large. Tourism has likewise felt the weight of this introspection, with some tourism industries regarding this year’s crisis as an opportunity to recalibrate with greater intentionality. It is an opportunity to move sustainable tourism from niche to norm.

As an industry, tourism must look at the flow of money and who is benefiting along the value chain –rural communities, women, SMMEs, multinational chains? Each can play a role in helping tourism to contribute to the sustainable development goals.