Foreign tourists who visit African wildlife reserves or coastal villages are often left with two burning impressions. One is the sheer beauty and exhilaration of the experience. The second is: why are so few other tourists here?
From its stunning beaches to its extraordinary safari adventures, Africa is a paradise for tourism. Yet it's an industry that remains unexploited, especially in comparison to the hordes of tourists who flock to Asian beaches and cities.
In the Okavango Delta of Botswana, one of the most remarkable ecosystems on earth, many luxury lodges and resorts were sitting empty last month, or offering their rooms at about one-third of their normal price. It's typical of the struggles of an African industry that could be so much more dynamic.
Africa has 15 per cent of the world's population, yet it received only 5.2 per cent of the world's tourist visits in 2010. This was up significantly from its 3.6 per cent share in 2008, yet still far below the share that it should have.
Tourism is one of the world's biggest and fastest-growing industries, providing directly and indirectly about 5 per cent of global GDP and nearly 7 per cent of global employment. But in Africa, tourism has failed to fulfill its huge potential. Tourism provides only 2 per cent of the continent's GDP -- far less than it could.
Nearly three-quarters of Africa's tourism revenue is generated by four countries: Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and South Africa. And only one of those countries is in sub-Saharan Africa.
"This desultory record belies the natural advantages Africa has over other regions that have performed much better, in particular the continent's extraordinary diversity -- of wildlife, environment and people," says a new report by the Brenthurst Foundation, a think-tank in Johannesburg.
The foundation argues that the African tourism business could grow much faster if it learned some lessons from Asia -- and specifically two countries, Vietnam and Cambodia.
Some people assume that Africa's tourism potential is hampered by its poverty and its wars. Yet both Vietnam and Cambodia had the same disadvantages, and both have overcome those obstacles.
Cambodia's tourism sector soared by 17 per cent in 2010, making it now the country's second-biggest source of foreign exchange earnings. In Vietnam, tourism has been expanding by 11 per cent annually since 1995, and tourism now accounts for 12 per cent of its GDP.
The Brenthurst report says African leaders should adopt four lessons from the intelligent and successful tourism strategies of Vietnam and Cambodia. First, they should help the private sector to offer a more diverse package of attractions, including eco-tourism, cultural tourism and maritime tourism.
Second, they should embark on aggressive marketing campaigns internationally to capitalize on their most famous tourism "brands," transforming them into global icons, while also developing new tourism hubs.
Third, they should professionalize the sector by investing in skills training in the tourism and hospitality sector.
And fourth, they should identify the most logical target markets, develop their potential, and eliminate obstacles such as visas that might discourage tourists from those target markets. This should include steps to tackle safety and health concerns, which discourage many potential visitors.
If African governments and entrepreneurs invest smartly in these measures, tourism could become a key source of jobs for a continent that still struggles with high unemployment. And it could unlock the massive potential of an industry that remains under-developed in Africa.
"No continent stands to benefit more from the 21st century tourism boom than Africa," the Brenthurst report says.