Vanessa Obioha reports on the Close the Gap webinar where stakeholders in the creative and tourism sectors in Africa discussed the way forward for the continent in a post-pandemic era
In a recent forecast by the African Development Bank (AfDB), it was revealed that countries that depend on oil and tourism for foreign exchange and fiscal revenues will especially face reduced fiscal space and heightened external account imbalances, stoking a build-up of public debt. Nigeria is in that category of countries with high dependence on oil, though tourism is another source of revenue which is yet to be fully explored. But like other Western countries with flourishing tourism are faced with the dilemma of reviving that sector from the biting hardship caused by COVID-19, stakeholders in the creative and tourism sector across Africa are also deliberating on how the continent which attracts a very small percentage of global population to its environs can bounce back and adjust to the needs of a post pandemic era.
These stakeholders recently convened at a virtual event to discuss the way forward for the sectors.
The Close the Gap webinar titled ‘Post COVID-19: For African Tourism To Revive, Reboot and Refocus’ was held in commemoration of the 50th birthday of renowned journalist and former Commissioner for Tourism, Arts and Culture in Lagos state, Steve Ayorinde. The respected gentleman had in June written an opinion piece in THISDAY where he quoted the lessons from the debilitating effects of the pandemic in African creative sector. “The wheel of the arts must never grind to a complete halt and the need to close the gap of separation and disunity has never been more imperative. Technology, therefore, has become the thread connecting the two positive news arising from the pandemic.”
His assertions were reiterated at the webinar where the 10-man panel dissected the various ways the pandemic has affected tourism and creative industries and the need to promote intra-Africa tourism as well as close the gap between African tourism promoters and the creative industry. Also, with the pandemic exposing the danger human activities pose to the environment, the need to promote ecotourism was emphasised.
James McGregor, a renowned advocate for sustainable tourism who has been living and working in Africa and owns Ecoplannet Sarl company in Morocco, identified the new tourist in a post COVID-19 era and how the tourism industry in Africa can meet his needs.
“The new client is one who has spent four months in confinement and is conscientious, and perhaps Africa is ideally positioned to respond to their needs. So it’s a question of reevaluating, reimagining — I put a lot of emphasis on that — and then refocusing what we’ve been doing in tourism for the past 30 years.”
MacGregor argued that the African toursim sector needs to look at what opportunities are available in the COVID-19 crisis and using them to create new tourist destinations. To achieve that, the tourism promoters need to have a reset of mind on where they want to be ethically, civilly and responsiby, while also preparing for the ‘next’ normal as there are more pandemics to be dealt with.
“We have a new market opportunity, thus, have a new type of client. A client that began confinement in many cases for months and have had time to reflect on the purpose of their life and sometimes realign their priorities and that should be showing up in the way that we’re going to be developing our tourism.”
He pointed out that the new client has quite a list of concerns which includes sanitation, health, disease and vulnerability. He highlighted that there is need to build confidence in the new traveller as most of them have lacked confidence on governments and travel markets’ response to the health crisis.
MacGregor also noted how humans have been separated from nature due to the lockdown in most countries. He however mentioned the various ways the pandemic has been related to climate change and loss of biodiversity.
“So there’s a real consciousness now out there in the public about how these diseases and our vulnerability to them are related to the way that we treat our natural world… You cannot attract tourists if you don’t prove to them ahead of time that you can provide a safe, clean environment. Health and safety have always been important but not to the extent that they are now.”
Apart from the honesty that is required, MacGregor insisted that there must be demonstrations on lowering the overall carbon emissions which are responsible for the rapid change in climate. He added that the continent can also look at travel bubbles as another means of reviving the sector.
“So our products have to be healthy and organic, all of which we can offer value based, of course, and environmentally and cultural responsibility. So, this is all within the framework of what we can do as we reimagine the new product.”
Founder Akwaaba Travel Market, Ikechi Uko concentrated on three critical points which he considered necessary for any underdeveloped country to transit to a developed nation.
“Number one, we have to stop doing stupid things, start doing smart things and plan for the future.”
Comparing the traffic of people in countries like Thailand and United Arab Emirates to African countries, Uko argued that the African tourism sector need to study the models of these countries and apply them.
“I think we have to look at what some of these small countries have done and put it on steroids and do it better. We have a wonderful opportunity, everybody in the world is at the same position now. Nobody is taller. Nobody is shorter. We have a huge opportunity now to move forward.”
He advised that tourism promoters should identify the markets they want to sell to since they can’t sell to everybody.
“If Lagos is the entertainment capital of Africa, travel promoters need to find out which destination in Africa wants entertainment the most…So first we have to know what we have and who can buy that market.”
While the president of the West Africa Travel Organisation (WATO) Ola Wright underscored the need for policy in the tourism sector, the Director General of the Nigerian Tourism Development Corporation (NTDC) Folorunsho Coker pointed out that we are in trouble globally.
“It’s a pandemic that has gone endemic and that means we are going to treat it like malaria, which equally means you have to take precautions like you have been taken for malaria.
For the DG, habits must change for the tourism sector to remain relevant in a post COVID-19 era.
“In every industry, not just in tourism, the corporate governance and the welfare of those involved in the tourism industry must change, and that means the review of laws and policies both in government and private sector institutions. The human capital development in terms of training must improve. We’re not selling fancy, beautiful and sweet smelling destinations anymore, we are selling safe, secure and comfortable destinations. That is the priority that everybody has on their mind.”
Although he acknowledged that infrastructure development is standstill because of the pandemic, he however stated that the crisis has given the industry an opportunity to package what they have and collaborate to make it better. He also touched on the need to promote domestic tourism.
“It is only on a solid foundation of domestic tourism that we can ever hope to even build a regional or pan African tourism strategy,” adding that “Financing is going to be very difficult as we’re in the middle of a pandemic expecting a recession that is going to be deeper than something we have ever seen.”
However, he is optimistic that Nigeria has a chance of revivifying the tourism sector since destinations that will be more marketable are those with lowest COVID-19 mortalities of which Nigeria’s record is not as high. He also advised on leveraging on the digital space to market their products.
The Regional Head West Africa for South Africa Tourism Thekiso Rakolojane, echoed same sentiments, stating that the pandemic came at a very challenging time for the southern African country. However, he disclosed that “arts and culture as a driver to tourism between West Africans and South Africa was one of the key levers that we have identified and definitely going to leverage on.”
He also talked about how the South African government is responding to visa delays.
“Prior to COVID-19, we already started implementing interventions that addressed it. For example in Nigeria, previously we used to only have two resources that will facilitate the visa applications out of Nigeria to South Africa. And just to give an indication, we had plus or minus 200 daily applications of visas out of Lagos alone to South Africa, and you have two people facilitating that. It goes without saying that you will not be able to achieve them. The government responded to that by adding an extra four resources: two in Lagos and two in Abuja. So in total we were looking at about eight resources that are now facilitating those applications.”
Still on using creative content to drive tourism, Belinda Nwosu, a consultant at W Hospitality Group proposed that Africans need to have a mind reset and start telling their stories.
“We need to believe more in ourselves and what we have in order to share with others. Tourism cannot happen if we are not confident or look for validation outside of ourselves.”
To achieve this, she called for a collaboration between the creative and tourism industries to create infrastructure such as Africa brand hotels; create experiences like having a Chinua Achebe’s museum; and promoting partnerships for the greater good of the continent.
Munya Chatnesa, the A&R Manager for Sony ATV Music Publishing South Africa in his presentation agreed with Nwosu on the need to promote creative tourism as music and tourism work hand-in-hand. He also elaborated on the importance of education of artistes in understanding the business of music.
Using the All Africa Music Awards (AFRIMA) as a case study, the founder Mike Dada reiterated that music, film, arts even photography are veritable tools to drive traffic to any destination.
A recurring statement made by the panelists is that the crisis has provided opportunities for the creative and tourism industry to grow,and with the commitment of the Africa Union Commission as reiterated by the Head of Culture Angela Martins; and Nigerian government as announced by the Minister of Information and Culture, the landscape of the creative and tourism sectors in a post COVID-19 era will be dotted with better opportunities.