Africa and the world are seeing a decline in tourists - should we be worried?

2020-01-28 04:45 - Gabi Zietsman
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In 2018 tourism was booming in Africa - a 9% increase from the previous year. 

But in 2019, that growth had dropped to 4%, according to the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) - despite limited data available for the continent. While North Africa did exceptionally well, including Egypt's economic stabilisation, Sub-Saharan Africa only had a 1.5% growth.

Should we be worried?

INFOGRAPHIC: Which African country is the most visa-friendly for other Africans? 

There have a few factors contributing to this slowdown - countries are clamping down on its borders, the global economy is stalling, the world's biggest travel operator Thomas Cook shut down last year and security and geopolitical tensions have made certain destinations less desirable in mainstream media. 

And if the hashtag #FlyingWhileAfrican is to be believed, airlines tend to put their worst foot forward on the continent - using older planes and ruder staff on African routes. 

In South Africa, there's been a big dip in international travellers - including fellow Africans - and with SAA's business rescue and routes cancellations, an ugly gap in the continent's much-needed air connectivity will be an antithesis to growth. 

ALSO READ: Cape Town makes it onto a 'no go' travel list, but it's not about tourists' safety 

The rest of the world?

But it's not only Africa that's seen this decline - the number of international tourist arrivals rose by 4% last year to 1.5 billion, its slowest rate since 2016. However, AFP reports that according to UNWTO's intelligence chief, Sandra Carvao, this decline is not ringing massive alarm bells.

"This is a growth that we can consider strong because it is within the historical average, but we see a slight slowdown compared to the last two years. But it should be noted that the last two years have been really exceptional with a growth that was not normal."  

Environmental concerns have also impacted on the industry, especially in Europe where flight shaming has generated a rise in slow travel to closer destinations instead of travelling to the other side of the world burning CO2. 

READ MORE: How SA airports (and some spekboom) are fighting long-haul 'flight shame' 

Another concern has been the uncertainties around Brexit - UK travellers make up a big chunk of the market and their unknown status has led to less travelling. 

But tourism remains an important economic driver for the world economy. 

“The number of destinations earning $1 billion or more from international tourism has almost doubled since 1998,” says Zurab Pololikashvili, UNWTO secretary-general in the report.

“The challenge we face is to make sure the benefits are shared as widely as possible and that nobody is left behind. In 2020, UNWTO celebrates the Year of Tourism and Rural Development, and we hope to see our sector lead positive change in rural communities, creating jobs and opportunities, driving economic growth and preserving culture.” 

Not everyone is feeling the pinch - the Middle East is growing at almost double the global average - 8% - due to Saudi Arabia's campaign to attract more visitors, while Asia and the Pacific also had an above-average growth. However, with Australia's bushfire disaster this might give the region a knock.

French tourists also seem to be spending the most as the world's top outbound market, while Americans were enjoying the benefits of a stronger dollar. China however - the world's biggest traveller market - is seeing a decrease in tourist spending. 

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Was does 2020 have in store for us?

The UNWTO is predicting a 3 - 4% growth this year, while 47% of participants in the report believe tourism will perform even better. 

Two major events - the Tokyo Olympics and Expo 2020 Dubai - is also expected to be a major driver for travellers at the start of the decade. 

Major changes to the Schengen visa coming into effect in February will also fuel more travel to Europe - while it will be more expensive, repeat visitors with clean records will be rewarded with longer visa stays and applications can be done much farther in advance. 

For Africa, SAA's fate still hangs up in the air for now, with little hope of a knight in shining armour riding in to rescue its routes. Visa access on the continent also remains stagnant, although the launch of eVisa application platforms is on the increase, including in South Africa with the launch of a pilot programme. 

The Department of Home Affairs also started a campaign at the end of 2019 to celebrate the eased travel requirements for minors visiting South Africa. The unabridged birth certificate saga had been a serious thorn to the industry for many years until it was finally scrapped last year. 

But as we know from the news - the world is an extremely volatile place, where only a soothsayer can say for sure where the world will be heading next.

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