East African countries have been urged to prioritise tourism in the integration agenda if they hope to rescue the lagging industry.
A study by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) indicates that the region ranks unfavourably in global tourism competitiveness.
“Development and growth in tourism in the region faces the challenge of a narrow product range devoid of innovation and creativity,” reads the report.
The study titled Towards Sustainable Development in Africa notes that this is due to inadequate investments in the sector, low human resource capacity, poor infrastructure, and a narrow tourism product.
The UNECA report was launched last week just as the East African Tourism Platform (EATP) — a private sector body whose goal is to promote the marketing of the region as a bloc — was launched in Arusha.
Both EATP and UNECA argue that the challenges faced by tourism can be overcome through a unified strategy within the framework of regional economic blocs such as the East African Community (EAC).
“A regional approach to tourism is needed in East Africa for the region to achieve its overall economic goals,” said EATP coordinator Waturi Matu.
Tourism has in recent years become a crucial pillar in the economies of regional states, contributing more than 4 per cent of the GDP in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania.
According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), in 2011, the sector also provided employment to about 745,000 people regionally. Despite this, the tourism industry is relatively underdeveloped compared with other parts of the world.
The EAC countries continue to rely on outdated products and marketing strategies at a time when other nations on the continent are putting up stiff competition.
According to the WEF’s 2011 Travel and Tourism report, Kenya was ranked 103 out of 139 countries in tourism competitiveness, having slipped from position 97 in 2009. Rwanda, a regional competitor, was ranked 102.
Data from the Kenya Tourism Board indicates that tourism arrivals fell by 0.5 per cent in the first quarter of this year under the twin pressures of security concerns and changing tastes among international tourists.
Kenya’s two-key products — beach and safari — are fast waning in their appeal to visitors. East African countries were ranked poorly, especially their cultural resources. Top performing countries in the WEF, say France, Greece, and Spain, had high cultural resource indices.
“An analysis of the top 10 and emerging tourist destinations in the world reveals that cultural, and not nature-based tourism, dominates the tourism products in these countries,” says UNECA.
Countries like Kenya have already began diversifying their cultural attractions through the improvement of sports facilities and planned construction of resort cities.
However, UNECA says these efforts could be complemented by selling the region as a single tourist bloc, thereby cutting down on punitive marketing costs. Countries could also leverage on each other’s tourist products to significantly diversifying their range.
“An inter-regional approach to tourism with multi-country tour packages will enhance our product offering, attract high yield markets and enrich visitors’ experiences,” said Ms Matu.
UNECA says that a tourism master plan should be set up to coordinate the regional tourism agenda. The body also says that the adoption of a single tourist visa should be accelerated.
This process has thus far stalled as countries in the EAC squabble over the sharing of money collected through visa fees.