One of the things that absolutely astounds me about Africa is the sheer diversity of the continent. Just think about it for a moment. It's like a real-life Noah's Ark with the Big 5 being not even the tip of the iceberg of the incredible wildlife on offer. A place so filled to the brim with fantastical landscapes that it is just about impossible to wrap one's head around it all (trust me I have tried). It is a veritable smorgasbord of culture, so much so that the number of distinctly different cultures, tribes, dialects and languages on offer is unknown. It is a continent that, for all intents and purposes, has the capacity to utterly and quite effectively blow your mind.
Yet, it doesn't.
Tourism in Africa is far from fantastical. Sure, there are a couple of colourful sprinkles here and there, but on the most part its actually rather boring in reality.
How dare I say that you ask?
Do me a favour and google "Africa tourism" and tell me what you see. The same couple of pictures over and over again. An army green game drive vehicle packed with people oogling an elephant, a lion, a giraffe or two or three. Perhaps a shot of Table Mountain, and of course that quintessential African scene of a single acacia tree caught in a fiery sunset over the savannah. And if you are very lucky, or scroll down far enough, you might get an image of some pyramids or a glimpse of Victoria Falls, even though these are actually 2 Wonders of the World.
What you most certainly will not get is diversity, despite this being Africa's superpower.
Why is that?
And perhaps even more importantly why does diversity even matter?
I want to challenge you to think beyond the typical response at this point that relegates a conversation around diversity to economic empowerment and the workplace. We are of course all aware of the imbalance in tourism on the continent. The reality that the majority of the high-rollers and big-earners are international brands, former colonial masters, and white/international managerial staff. There is no doubt that diversity is a hot topic on this front in tourism, as well as in most other business areas on the continent.
However, the problem of diversity in tourism goes far beyond this generic argument.
The real issue lies in the markets that are prioritised and in the product that is packaged to sell to them. What do I mean by this? Africa's tourism product is packaged and marketed almost exclusively for Western international tourists. And while there has been some market diversification in recent years in the desperate attempt to capture what has become a valuable Chinese and Indian market. The truth is that the emphasis has remained the exact same for decades ,and decades. And therefore, so too has Africa's colonial tourism product.
You see diversity is the secret sauce that turns a cookie-cutter destination into a one-of-a-kind experience to live in and fall in love with. Without diversity you are left with almost indistinguishable destinations, that just meld into one repetitive google gallery like you just saw. And that is why we are simply not seeing diversity in Africa's tourism industry. The product and market has not changed in the decades since colonialism.
We are still packaging and repackaging the same stale old cookie-cutter colonial tourism product for the same markets. And because these markets still imagine the continent as "Deepest Darkest Africa" (who can blame them since this is what the news tells them it is) tour operators and destinations haven't had to work very hard to package the "exotic experience." In fact, in many ways the more 'Disneylandish' the better - just look at the obsession with creating 'cultural villages,' for example.
The problem is, Covid has changed all of that. Covid has upended the "international-as-usual" phenomenon, leaving destinations and businesses scrambling across the continent. At the moment, major discounting is the approach being taken by destinations and businesses to woo their previously ignored local, domestic and regional markets. And while that may be filling beds for now, how long is that approach going to work for?
How long are we going to continue to stick our heads in the sand hoping that the problem will just go away? That the international market will recover before anyone has to change anything...
When are we going to face the fact that there is a major diversity issue that needs to be addressed in Africa?
When are we going to realise that diversity and innovation is what will set the continent up for success at the levels it has always been dreaming of, but failed to reach.