Africa is without a doubt a continent of tourism possibilities and expansion.
The United Nations World Travel Organization recently reported that the African continent experienced a tourism increase of 8.1%, while Western European destinations showed little to no tourism growth in 2016. Visitor totals in Sub-Saharan Africa grew more than 10% year-over-year, the most of any world region or sub-region.
The region is not about to stop there, either. Data gatherer STR reports that 319 hotels and 60,713 rooms are currently under contract in Africa. That includes 27,790 rooms in 155 hotels under construction, a 35% increase year on year.
South African Tourism has developed a "five in five" strategy: It wants to grow tourism numbers by 5 million in five years. In addition, Zimbabwe signed an agreement with Chinese investors to develop a "Disneyland in Africa" concept near the prime resort of Victoria Falls. Tourism minister Walter Mzembi was quoted as saying the theme park was part of a vision for a $5 billion tourism industry in Victoria Falls.
With images of over-tourism in Europe still fresh on our minds, the question arises whether Africa is perhaps growing too quickly and could be at risk of losing its authenticity.
Bjarne "BJ" Mikkelsen, owner of Great Dane Journeys, said that although the "five in five" goal is in itself a noble business goal, he hopes it will not happen. "Already today you see the rush of vehicles gathering [and at high speed] at a good spot for game watching without any regards for their surroundings. With communication being superb and having great safari vehicles this 'sport' of rushing around the bush for tourists to get good pictures is already too much today," he said.
However, others said tourism development is crucial for Africa. "Most tour operators in Africa will welcome infrastructure development as it allows us to offer our clients more choice and better rates. However, the sad truth is that development will always take away some of the authenticity of a destination," said Henk Graaff, managing director at SW Africa.
Graaff explained that the addition of every single room in a nature area brings with it the need for more vehicles and more supplies. This in turn will have a negative impact on the area.
"The key is to find the right balance," said Graaff. "It would be fantastic if we could preserve every natural area in its original state, but the truth is the continent needs tourism. If development is what is required to be able to fund conservation initiatives and the protection of the continent, then there is no reason to be against sustainable development."
Onne Vegter, managing director at Wild Wings Safaris, added it is important to keep up with development and infrastructure growth to support the increasing numbers of tourists in a sustainable way. "More development in itself will not affect the authenticity, and ongoing development is inescapable," he said, adding that poor planning and management as well as unsustainable or unregulated development without proper impact assessments are what causes the problems.
Enver Duminy, CEO Cape Town Tourism, said that in underdeveloped and developing countries the focus must be on achieving socio-political maturity in order to create an environment for sustainable tourism. He said: "Infrastructural development is necessary for tourism, among other sectors, to grow. Roads, airports, retail centers and internet connectivity are gaining capacity, allowing for more opportunities."
According to Duminy, developing nations are, by nature, growing in terms of urban development, and this with all manner of contemporary influences, but there's a sense of ownership over culture and surroundings that will hopefully see those nations' natural integrity remaining intact.
The sheer size of Africa as a tourism destination also helps avoid overcrowding, but it's important that the tourism numbers are spread across the continent, according to industry players.
Marguerite Smit, Travel Beyond, pointed out that Africa is a large continent, and many areas have room for growth. She explained that Rwanda, for example, is known for gorilla trekking, but very few people do a full safari circuit in the country. "This is partly due to lack of infrastructure and adequate accommodation options on par with what high-end travelers are used to experiencing, when traveling to Volcanos National Park," she said.
Smit added that gorilla-trekking permit pricing doubled this year to combat an overcrowded market. However, those permits are offered at a reduced price if you combine gorilla trekking with other areas in Rwanda, forming a circuit. "This is a very clever way of opening up travel within Rwanda, especially if you take into account the number of new properties popping up in and around Volcanos National Park," she said.
"There is a very fine line between authentically Africa and world resort appeal," said Smit. In countries like Botswana 15 years ago, she said, the safari experience was authentic with tented camp experiences in the heart of untouched Africa. "Present-day Botswana competes for creature comforts, boasting plunge pools, air-conditioning and WiFi at extremely high nightly rates," Smit said. "This is where I believe the trade needs to tread lightly. Although there is a strong market for this product, people are becoming more and more ecofriendly and in search of an authentic experience rather than a luxury hotel in the bush."
Jim Holden, owner of Holden Safaris, said Africa still has expansive pristine wildlife areas that are seldom visited and not on the regularly used tourist routes. He said: "A policy to spread out tourist arrivals to these more remote areas helps with Africa's ongoing need to conserve its wildlife and improve the livelihood of its people. The challenge for tourism boards and tour operators is to entice visitors to these more remote areas away from what is perceived as the more 'trendy' or fashionable areas of Africa."
According to Holden, there is no danger of Africa risking its authenticity or "untouched appeal" if visitors can be persuaded to visit the less-visited areas of Africa that are as fascinating and attractive as the more commonly visited areas. He said: "Africa is a vast continent of now 54 countries consisting of swaths of untouched wildlife areas."