Dorine Reinstein
Dorine Reinstein

Africa this month saw the soft launch of its African Tourism Board. This new, multinational body created to promote the travel and tourism sector across the continent was unveiled at World Travel Market in London.

Created by the International Coalition of Tourism Partners, the ATB aims to enhance and promote "the sustainable growth, value and quality of travel on the African continent under the banner 'Where Africa becomes one tourist destination.'"

ICTP chairman and ATB founder Juergen Steinmetz said the official launch is planned for April at World Travel Market in Cape Town.

According to Steinmetz, in a first stage ATB will offer a playing field for ministers, tourism board executives, airlines and organizations to exchange ideas, communicate and hopefully implement ways to work together.

The second stage will consist of marketing and outreach, with a special focus on North America. "We truly plan a global outreach, but specific marketing campaigns, training, media outreach is planned in North America. This region is the major focus market at this time."

Although Steinmetz said it's too early to speculate exactly what will be offered as part of the outreach campaign, the ATB is working on an interactive web portal that will enable smaller companies in Africa to be part of the distribution system.

"We're hoping to maintain a call center in North America, find a way to interact with travelers and the trade through email and social, media and establish a 'friends of the media' campaign," he said.

Until now, Steinmetz said Africa has often been overlooked in global tourism planning and recognition. "Compare numbers in Africa with Europe or other destinations. There is a long way to go for Africa to be on the same level as the rest of the tourism world. Africa is often seen as a charity destination and a place for volunteers wanting to give back. This is all great, but it's not the tourism image Africa should seek."

Tour operators across the continent have welcomed the initiative, saying more collaboration is definitely warranted.

Safari Pros' vice chair Craig Pieters of Karell Travel said that in the past, numerous traditional, country-specific tourist boards have been marketing their own destinations in Africa with little synergy or cooperation. "The result has been that they've had a fragmented or limited reach, and this is a huge missed opportunity when it comes to raising the profile of Africa as a destination."

Pieters said his hope is that the new African Tourism Board will bring multiple African destinations together to more effectively market the continent as a whole to a wider audience.

Michael King, Great Getaways Travel, an affiliate of Largay Travel, a Virtuoso Agency, agreed and said until now sub-Saharan African countries have marketed as stand-alone destinations.

A more global approach could give travelers a better idea of the diversity of experiences on offer on the continent, according to King. He said: "Hopefully this board can and will speak to all of Africa, giving travelers a sense of the enormity of experiences awaiting anyone who travels to Africa. Many travelers think of Africa in terms of safari -- and for sure this is a primary reason for going to Africa -- but there are many other reasons to go, unique in their own way from culinary to adventure to cultural."

Conservation is also high on the agenda of the tourism board. "The African Tourism Board is about business, but it's also about responsible and sustainable tourism," Steinmetz said at the soft launch in London.

Wilderness Safaris has welcomed the initiative to put sustainable tourism in focus. "We truly value the importance of collaboration and forming conservation coalitions to address some of the larger challenges in our industry," said Dave Bennett, Wilderness Safaris' managing director. "The diversity and influence of the proposed board has the ability to make real change, and we are hopeful that this body will be able to tackle some of the common high-level challenges we face in the tourism industry. We fully support dialogue across countries and stakeholders."

Luca Franco, CEO and founder of Luxury Frontiers, agreed and said that his company has had the pleasure of designing and developing projects across Africa and is intimately familiar with how strong of a tourism destination Africa already is.

"However, with the continent's immense richness in nature areas and wildlife reserves, we are thrilled that the formation of a new and collaborative African Tourism Board will help to ensure that destinations and tourism opportunities are also developed responsibly and with a sustainable approach," said Franco.

For Paul Tully, sales and marketing manager for Captured in Africa, the introduction of the ATB is a great step in supporting and encouraging tourism to Africa. He said: "Africa is, in part, an untapped destination for many travelers, and we have an opportunity to breathe life into the new tourism areas and kick-start and revamp the tired and overexposed tourist areas."

However, there are a few obstacles that will need to be taken into consideration for the tourism board to be successful, according to the travel trade.

Devan Jobanputra of Kenyan-based Travel In Style said that it is good to hear about a larger body encompassing the whole continent that's able to provide advocacy and support for development of tourism that will further grow economies on the continent. However, he warned it is important that the ATB stick to its mandate of not overstepping tourism ministries or national tourist boards.

Jim Holden, president of Holden Safaris, added that the ATB will be a good initiative if it's given the funds needed to adequately promote Africa with its many attractions. "Too often tourist boards are starved for funds, and it is left to the private sector to promote the destination."

Meanwhile, Warren Green from sustainable tourism company Warren Green and Associates said that although he likes the idea of Africa being placed on a pedestal competing with other destinations, it is such a diverse continent that it simply cannot be homogenized under one banner. "Each country is so diverse environmentally, geographically and culturally that I'm not sure they all deserve to be lumped under a single marketing banner," he said.

He agreed with Holden that the key to the ATB's success is going to be its ability to leverage financial backing from already heavily taxed constituents and to work harmoniously with the existing national tourism boards.

Steinmetz allayed these fears by saying the ATB will honor the diversity of the continent and that the organization has no intention of taking over national tourism initiatives or tourism boards. "See us as a consultant, see us as a client ready to bring business."

Steinmetz concluded: "The main aim of the African Tourism Board is to increase quality and sustainable tourism to Africa, focus on Africa only and in a global way."

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