Africa positions itself in tourism's mainstream

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NEW YORK -- No longer a destination for the privileged few, Africa is becoming downright mainstream in its popularity, according to Michael Seltzer, founder and director of New York-based Business Enterprises for Sustainable Travel, or BEST.

The association is a resource center for travel professionals on travel practices that aim to advance the interests of communities as well as travelers and businesses.

"Tourism to Africa is growing at a faster rate than to many other parts of the world, and, in fact, in the ten-year period ending in 1997, Africa had the highest percentage increase of arrivals than anywhere in the world," Seltzer said. Mind you, he added, the number of arrivals only accounted for 4% of tourists worldwide.

The significance of these numbers to agents is that "Africa is a growing destination, and more customers will be seeking it out," he said.

"What you have in Africa as major draws for tourists are wildlife, scenery, culture, sun, sea and sand," Seltzer said.

The continent's top attractions are South Africa, Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt, Seltzer said, adding that a number of new products are becoming available that highlight other regions, as well.

Noting that Africa is three times the size of the continental U.S., Seltzer said that many of the continent's regions and attractions are not yet widely known. He called this lack of knowledge a boon to travel agents who choose to become experts in the field.

"The continent is abounding in opportunities to see things still in their pristine state or where history is so recent," he said. Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 20 years, for example, has become one of the most popular tourism sites in South Africa, Seltzer said.

"In west Africa, there is a heritage tourism trail that follows the route of the former slave trade," he said, adding that such programs are often of special interest to African-American travelers, "which is an increasingly important niche market to Africa."

Seltzer disputed the conventional wisdom that Africa is a once-in-a-lifetime destination, noting that the repeat market is growing. "One trip creates an appetite for the next. People are drawn by the notion of wildlife, but once here, they find an evocative, rich culture, heritage and architecture."

As to Africa being inaccessible, Seltzer said: "You can fly to the farthest western point in Africa in not much more time than it takes to fly to Europe."

But while all this interest in Africa is good for tourism, is it good for the country and its people?

According to Seltzer, there are hosts of companies that are taking the lead in preserving the destination in terms of both its natural resources and its culture.

"What we are seeing is a growth in the number of adventure, nature, cultural and heritage tour operators, from walking tours with the Masai tribe to township tours to see how local South Africans live," he said.

African music's popularity also is a draw for visitors who focus on the country's rich musical traditions, Seltzer added.

He cited the growth of volunteer tourism on the part of guests who opt to counter the country's widespread poverty with some form of activism.

"We are seeing an emerging trend worldwide for tour operators to create an opportunity for guests to benefit local communities," he said, singling out Conservation Corporation Africa, an ecotourism operator whose clients sometimes return after a visit to teach in local schools.

To help travel agents choose responsible suppliers, BEST has a database, soon to go on line, containing about 500 resources. Interested travel agents can call the company at (212) 339-0335, fax (212) 836-9718 or visit the Web site at www.sustainabletravel.org.

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