Keynote Address- Sustainable Tourism in Africa
MKTE 2017, Seminar
Nairobi Kenya


Founder & Executive Director at Sustainable Travel & Tourism Agenda- STTA

Examining tourism & the question of sustainability in the sector can be a complex undertaking as it requires one to examine the both the travel and tourism industry and the travel and tourism economy. But examining the question of sustainability in tourism industry in Africa, is much more complex because, tourism is yet to achieve its potential. So how does one even address issues of over-tourism or sustainable consumption and production when we are still struggling to get the numbers and the forex that comes with it? What comes first, ethics or profits? These are the questions Africa is grappling with in this era of sustainability

Suffice to say, Africa’s tourism is at crossroads when it comes to sustainability. Political instability, closed borders and air spaces, elite capture in the tourism industry, unsustainable practices, entrenched poverty in destinations, competition, poor product innovation & diversity, exclusion of host communities, incompatible land uses in wildlife areas, loss of wildlife, extraneous curriculum in learning institutions, weak/poor enforcement of policies and minimal research, among other factors, are threatening the future of tourism.

The future is not all bleak. An opportunity exists in Africa embracing sustainable tourism. According to STTA (2016), sustainable tourism is tourism that utilizes available resources (natural, cultural, physical) in ways that add value to host communities, travellers, employees, and nations without decreasing the ability of future generations to access, utilize, and consume the same resources in their most pristine form

The UNWTO, on the other hand defines sustainable tourism as- Tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of the visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities

These definitions can be broken down as follows

  • Environment / ecological consciousness have shifted focus from businesses adopting green practices in their operations saving water and energy and planting trees etc., to business responding to challenges to life of land, life under water, climate change and. it more about being a global citizen
  • Ethical and social consciousness has shifted from simply employing local people, benefit sharing to issues of justice, equity in benefit sharing, trading local, empowerment and partnerships with host communities; to issues of decent work and economic growth – how you treat employees ; peace is making its way into ethical issues- Is orphanage tourism worth undertaking because it brings revenue
  • Economic viability – This is no longer just about businesses breaking even, it is about REDUCING LAKAGES, fair businesses practices in the sector, supply chain consciousness, fiscal responsibility, strategy and policies

This means that tourism will have to pay attention to the following elements in conceptualising, planning, implementation, and operating tourism. What are the challenges?

Challenges / Issues

  • Africa is an emerging destination and we desperately need the numbers & revenue. How do safeguard ourselves from becoming a mass tourism destinations? As soon as we open new places for tourism, in the hope of keeping them pristine and upmarket, they quickly get overrun by adventure travellers and opened up for more travellers as they become more accessible. This is because we are still developing with focus on numbers and not on long-term value of destination. This is made worse by lack of policies on sustainable development
  • Elite capture of the industry. This unspoken issue has inhibited the diversification and/growth of other segments of tourism. The pioneers built their tourism empire from mass tourism based on foreign arrivals. They will not invest in tourism for local people or even the African market. This trend has rendered the sector unsustainable through seasonality and other threats.
  • High level of influence on the sector by uncontrollable factors e.g. political instability, weather, disease outbreaks, make it difficult to rely on tourism as a key economic driver. Yet many developing Africa nations, depend on tourism as a key economic sector
  • Rising social and environmental expectations in key export markets. Demand for consciousness is from consumers. They are or may not be sensitive to local challenges. If their expectations are not addressed, they could become a barrier to trade for Africa.
  • Tourism industry is characterised by many small businesses, mainly SMEs. These micro-businesses are not coordinated. As such realizing quick and coordinated response to market trends is a challenge. Secondly, the precarious relationship between these SMEs with tourism multinationals and local giants, combined with the unpredictable factors that influence the sector hamper responses to changes in the market place. This means Africa is always behind market trends. Until the giants act, nothing happens.
  • Seasonality of the industry encourages casual labour/ high level of temporary workers leading to low wages. How can Africa guarantee decent work and economic growth under these circumstances?


Intra-Regional Travel

  • Capitalizing on domestic tourism: Sustainable tourism in Africa must be built on local travellers and not depend on international travellers. Africa’s tourism needs to tap on the growing middle class to build a strong domestic tourism foundation, which will contribute to a sustainable tourism sector.
  • Distinct products and services: Aside from capitalizing on local tourism, Africa needs to change its product development approach and plan Tourism in Africa for Africa, which entails developing products and services tailor made for local travellers.

Democratizing Tourism in Africa

  • Product costing: In order to capitalize on the potential of its domestic tourism capacity, Africa needs to make travel accessible and affordable
  • Seamless travel: Information technology, liberalization of air travel, and open borders, are essential for driving the democratization of travel in Africa and as such, tourism stakeholders need to advocate for and promote the use of information technology across the sector as well as lobby governments to improve the tourism sector policy environment. Tourism operators in Africa must embrace e-tourism to increase its presence in the market and should capitalize on UGC for product development and discovery of new experiences and destinations.

Marketing & Promotion

  • Experiential marketing: Marketing of the tourism sector, should focus on selling experiences. Africa needs to tell its story. Each of Africa’s 1.2 billion people should be nurtured to tell Africa’s story and be Africa’s tourism ambassadors. Additionally, destination marketing should be responsible and should reflect the true nature of the destination.

Community-Based Tourism

  • Inclusive tourism: Pro-poor tourism approaches and strategies that are meant to alleviate poverty among the rural poor need to be rethought if tourism is to benefit local communities. This includes supporting Community Conservancies, an emerging conservation model in Africa, because of their suitability to contribute to SDGs and encouraging industry stakeholders to embrace sustainable tourism to ensure tourism generates benefits for local communities and supports community-led tourism enterprises.

Sustainable Consumption, Production & Climate Change

  • Sustainable consumption: Tourism can be an agent for global warming, especially through aviation and other unsustainable consumption and management patterns. This is especially so given the low levels of consciousness about sustainability among African tourism stakeholders. Africa’s aviation in particular, has been slow in adapting sustainability. This makes them uncompetitive and could cost the region ecologically and economically through increased carbon emissions and shunning conscious travellers respectively. In addition, engaging tourism sector stakeholders and actors to reduce negative impacts from their practices and educating travellers and local communities on the impact of tourism on local ecosystems as well as its contribution to climate change is critical in ensuring the sector’s sustainability. For example, industry actors can reduce energy-poverty in rural destinations through co-investing with host communities in clean energy. Aside from energy, there is need to develop and adopt sustainable practices in food handling in tourism facilities as well as waste management systems in order to minimize the adverse impacts of the industry on the natural resources base as well as life on land and life under water.

Research, Innovation & Product Development

  • Innovative thinking: The richness and diversity of Africa’s tourism sector should be fully utilized and Africa should be innovative in product development if the continent is to become competitive. However, for this to be realized, Africa must stop overexploitation of its limited natural resources and broaden its range of tourism products, which requires designing innovative tourism products that are suitable for the African market. To this end, operators must be willing to change how they do business to embrace sustainable tourism principles. Their actions will influence change in systems.
  • Research: Research combined with innovative thinking and transformative technology will disrupt current tourism development in Africa and will create space for new opportunities that could be exploited. Engaging academia is critical and there is need for recognizing the academic sector as important stakeholders in tourism development.

Rights-Based Tourism

  • As a sector that is highly dependent on local resources including labour, Africa’s tourism sector must ensure the rights of local communities are protected and upheld. The industry must be conscious about its supply chain by ensuring human rights abuses do not occur in the supply chain. This entails protecting children from abuse and exploitation as well ensuring healthy working environments for industry employees. 

Risks / Threats of Africa  Ignoring sustainability in tourism

There are risks associated with all forms of international Trade. Tourism is the worlds leading category of international trade. However, the risks in tourism ignoring sustainable tourism are heightened by the peculiarities of tourism trade. These risks include”

  • New trade barriers
  • Loss of competitiveness
  • Cheaper destination
  • Poverty & Conflicts when tourism collapses 


All types of tourism businesses can achieve sustainability as long as there is respect for places/resources that tourism is dependent upon, empowerment of host communities, and social and economic accountability by businesses. However, this is dependent on progressive policies, that encourage long term commitment by investors, and are consistent with local values and market trends, and is backed by monitoring and evaluation of industry impacts.

Tourism businesses need to learn, un-learn and/or re-learn new/responsible and sustainable ways of doing tourism. This will require collaborative research, new product development, training and re-learning, curriculum review institutions of learning, new policies, which incorporate the sustainability agenda as well as involvement of host communities in the tourism economy.