Re-Energising Tourism in COMESA

Tourism’s potential to contribute to economic growth, job creation and foreign exchange earnings is phenomenal, being the world’s largest and fastest-growing service industry.

Tourism in the COMESA island countries (Seychelles, Madagascar, Mauritius, Comoros) contributes to between 14%-25% of GDP and more than half of their export earnings. While in mixed economies like Kenya and Egypt, it accounts for approximately 12% of GDP and about 20% of export revenue.

COMESA, endowed with an abundance of diverse natural resources, has enormous potential to attract large numbers of tourists, thus boosting tourism revenue. Most member states have developed a keen interest in tourism and prioritised it as an engine for growth. The sector continues to be a source of foreign currency and a crucial contributor to job creation and poverty reduction.

The Zambian tourism offering is diverse, with attractions including the world-famous Victoria Falls, vast wildlife resources, spectacular landscapes and wilderness areas, a rich culture and natural heritage, adventure activities and pleasant weather.

Port Louis, Mauritius

Zambia’s tourism industry, which has shown signs of steady growth in recent years, was negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the industry is recovering and is on the rise again. In 2019, the sector contributed to 7% of the country’s GDP ($1.7 billion) and 7.2% of total employment (468,000 jobs). International visitors spent $849 million, representing 10% of Zambia’s exports.

Though Zambia did not close its borders, the number of international visitors has declined with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The first three months of 2020 saw a drop of over 14,000 international visitors.

A snap poll of members of the Eco-Tourism Association of Zambia (ETAZ) suggests that Zambia’s safari tourism and allied sectors such as airlines and charters suffered a combined loss in income of $100 million in 2020. Going forward, the Zambian government should consolidate its licensing process into a one-stop shop so as to facilitate the entry of new firms into the travel and tourism sector.

In order to diversify the Zambian economy and promote the tourism sector, the government is developing tourism in the Northern Circuit*, encompassing Luapula, Northern and Muchinga provinces. Furthermore, tourism industry players are being encouraged to explore the rising business opportunities such as developing the domestic tourism sub-sector (in a bid to recoup lost revenues from international tourism in the backdrop of the ravages of the pandemic in the past couple of years.)

It is heartening to note that with the easing of COVID-19 restrictions, the region’s tourism sector has started showing signs of recovery. International arrivals are increasing as airlines re-launch and offer new routes and increased frequency, thereby aiding hotels and lodges in reviving their businesses. Tourism markets in the region are bouncing back as economies on the continent explore more opportunities but the damaging effects of the pandemic are still evident in Zambia and the rest of COMESA.

The COMESA secretariat recently conducted a study on the socio-economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in the region. The study is expected to help member states develop policies to address the impact of the pandemic on their economies.

The resultant contraction in economic growth is likely to badly affect countries that are resource-intense, oil exporters and tourism-dependent.

The study identified the services sector as the most affected due to travel restrictions and lockdowns in the recent past. These encompass business services, air transport, road transport and tourism. Comoros, Seychelles, Mauritius, Kenya, Ethiopia, Egypt and Madagascar, which heavily rely on services sectors, have been the most affected.

“Available data pointed to a double-digit reduction of 22% in the travel and tourism sectors during the first quarter of 2020, and March arrivals down by 57%. The reduction translates into a loss of 67 million international arrivals and about $80 billion in receipts,” the report states. 

COMESA’s tourism development prospects are promising, and the sector potential remains largely untapped despite member states recognising its significance. Recent programmes underscore these prospects.

In June 2021, the Global Environment Facility (GEF) approved a $5.7 million project to boost the capacity of COMESA member states to effectively track and report their progress in tackling climate change, in line with their commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement. 

The project includes a $4.2 million grant from the GEF and $1.54 million in co-financing from partners. The five-year Capacity Building Initiative for Transparency (CBIT) covers Comoros, Eritrea, Seychelles and Zambia.

“In the long-term, the results of the CBIT project will improve policy and decision-making in the management of natural resources and promote sustainability of nature-based economic sectors such as agriculture and tourism,” said Michael O’Brien-Onyeka, Senior Vice President of the Conservation International, Africa Field Division, currently managing the project in partnership with COMESA and the governments of the four states.

Despite the efforts made to harmonise the tourism approach at a regional level, it is evident that a lot more needs to be done. COMESA still faces disjointed tourism strategies.

Institutional weak structures and limited capacity to implement strategies at the national level need to be addressed as they have a soft feed into the regional initiatives. Capacity-building mechanisms need to be adopted and implemented aggressively.

Limited research on the nature and structure of the tourism industry in the region should be upscaled. Detailed analysis is required to identify the key factors stimulating intra-regional tourism integration and collaboration. There is a need to develop transnational products and marketing strategies to encourage more tourist inflows and enhance higher trickle-down effects across the region. 

A vibrant tourism industry that will foster social, environmental and economic benefits to the people within the region is achievable. A unified approach to tourism development is the key to the door to success.

*Main image (by Kalichi Pictures) features Chishimba Falls, which is part of the Northern Circuit.

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