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Tourism is the fastest developing enterprise in Africa and currently one of the continent’s major investment opportunities, viewing its 6% growth rate for the last decennium. Africa receives 4.8% of

Study Description

Tourism is the fastest developing enterprise in
Africa and currently one of the continent’s major
investment opportunities, viewing its 6% growth
rate for the last decennium. Africa receives
4.8% of all tourist arrivals in the world, and 3.3%
of the receipts and although it is not at the heart
of the global tourist market, this modest propor-
tion of the world’s number one industry is still
important for the continent. Global tourist dyna-
mics do depend on the situation in the devel-
oped world, but less on the situation in financial
markets. Though tourists’ choice of international
destination is often fickle and fleeting, a clear
pattern has emerged for Africa: just one third of
tourists go to the Maghreb countries, over a
third to Southern Africa, almost a quarter to East
Africa, and the remainder are spread over the
rest of the continent, but mainly West Africa.
Tourists taking pictures after a mask performance,
Africa is an unusual tourist destination as its
attractions are quite different from those of the
rest of the world. First and foremost, Africa is
the parallel universe, a continent where – ac-
cording to popular perception and the tourist
brochures – history has halted, and people live
as in time immemorial, following their age-old
traditions. Their thatched villages are set in a
borderless expanse of bush where wild animals
normally only seen in zoos roam wild: in short, a
vision of pristine wildness. A totally different
vision of Africa is generated by the western
media: a continent beset with climatic and politi-
cal catastrophes, wars and genocide, droughts
and famine. That particular Africa has to be
helped through emergency and development
aid. These two visions are both extremely
biased, if not plain wrong. Africa as ‘wild and
unspoilt’ or as ‘suffering and dependent’ coexist
in the Western view almost without touching, the
first, the African myth of tourism, the second,
one of development interventions.
Tourism and development
For a long time, tourism has been a non-issue
for the development establishment. On the one
hand it sometimes was viewed as an example of
neo-colonialism, on the other strictly a matter of
private business. The picture of the rich western
tourist gallivanting on the plains of East Africa,
taking photos of well-kept wild animals while
people were starving on the roadside, was not
encouraging. And for those who visited the
indigenous cultures, the notion of the zoo was
easily replaced by that of the ‘human zoo’,
wealthy westerners taking pictures of bare-
breasted women in front of thatched huts.
Recently this has changed; after all, tourism has
been shown to be a major source of jobs and
revenue for local people, so it does, in fact, have
development potential. Also most African coun-
tries want to develop their tourist industry, con-
sidering it a welcome source of income, even if
some have inflated notions of future revenues.
Approach and results
It has become clear that tourism is here to stay,
that people can earn money from it and that
even if our western sensitivities are to some
extent shared by African governments, the host
countries emphatically favour tourism. It has
also become clear that making money out of
tourism – though definitely possible – is not so
easy and that tourism interacts with ecological,
political and cultural dynamics that may run
perpendicular to the economic exigencies of the
new industry. It is these dynamics that form the
main angle of the African Studies Centre’s re-
search on African tourism.
Tourism research at the ASC focuses on
people interacting with people in the context of
the tourist encounter on the one hand and on
the exigencies and dynamics of eco-oriented
tourism on the other. African tourist destinations
are quite diverse, with various niches of tourism
situated in different countries. Game parks
abound in East and Southern Africa, while ethnic
tourism is to be found more in West Africa, with
some special spots of ‘romance tourism’ in the
continent’s extreme east and west, and in Gam-
bia and Ghana the peculiar ‘heritage’ or ‘roots’
tourism – mainly for African American tracing
their cultural heritage and origins. So except for
South Africa and Kenya, which do combine a
number of important other attractions with its
game parks, African tourism is more or less
one-dimensional. The major architectonic high-
points south of the Sahara is believed to lack
global appeal as monuments of world history or
‘wonders of the world’. Also most of Africa
(except South Africa) has little or no internal
tourism, as black Africans have not (yet) taken
to tourism in their own or neighbouring coun-
tries; those Africans that do travel tend to visit
their families, preferably in the capitals of
Europe. In North Africa travelling is dominated
by family visits from the diaspora.
Thus, research on African tourism implies re-
search on international and intercultural rela-
tions, not only important for the revenue that
tourism accrues but also as a microcosm of
South-North relations. The research at the ASC
zooms in on three processes of these dynamics.
Research topics
The first process is the cultural exchange in-
volved in tourist encounters. Situated in West
Africa, mainly among the Dogon of Mali and in
the Mandara Mountains of north Cameroon, this
research takes the angle of the host population
in its reception of tourists, guided by the ques-
tion as to what happens when people from very
different cultures meet face to face under such
paradoxical circumstances. Tourists have been
coming to both areas for a considerable time,
Dogon country being one of the major hot spots
of West African tourism, and of ethnic African
tourism in particular. The notion of the ‘tourist
bubble’, the network of infrastructure to receive
and host international guests, is crucial here.
The second process, situated in the Maasai
area of Kenya, is the problematic of ecological
scarcity. The tourist infrastructure puts a pre-
mium on the ecology in several ways. One is
water, as most parks are situated in semi-arid
areas and tourists consume large amounts of
water. Also the growing human population
clashes with the exigencies of maintenance and
the expansion of tourist infrastructure and parks.
In the context of a longitudinal geographical
study of southern Kenya, this project follows the
expansion of tourism from the perspective of
marginalized groups, with the added pique that
the Maasai themselves are considered one of
the tourist attractions.
The third aspect is politics. Both in national
and international politics tourism has become an
issue. Game parks in particular have long been
an arena in which the interests of conservation-
nists, hunters, dealers in rare animals and ani-
mal products, and protagonists of local cultures
and geopolitics interact. Serving as a safety
corridor of old, many of these game parks are
situated along national borders and are now
being transformed by peaceful inter-action, with
sometimes imperialistic overtones. One such
case being studied is the Transfrontier Park,
which includes parks in South Africa, Mozam-
bique and Zimbabwe.
Covane Community Lodge near Limpopo National Park,


These processes give African tourism a spe-
cial flavour, in which the major interests of the
African Study Centre, development, politics,
connectivity, ecology and cultural encounters
come to the fore.
These ASC tourist studies are being done in
close cooperation with research institutes in the
relevant countries in Africa, informing general
tourism theory and debates in the disciplines of
anthropology and geography, as well as devel-
opment policy.
For a full list of references, please see
Wouter van Beek / Marcel Rutten


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