Tourism growth should be anchored on adequate infrastructure development

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Prosper Ndlovu

WITH tourism seen as a critical anchor for economic growth and job creation in Africa, there is an urgent need for the regional private sector and governments to scale up infrastructure development to support the travel and leisure sector. Numerous research studies and expert insight concur on the possibility of harnessing tourism opportunities, riding on the rich natural heritage on the continent and several inherent comparative advantages across regional destinations.

Yet sluggish infrastructure development remains a key loophole that continues to limit the potential for high earnings from the tourism industry. 

According to the African Development Bank (AfDB), the continent has an infrastructure gap of up to $170 billion a year. As such, several African countries lack adequate infrastructure upon which tourism growth should be hinged. Such critical infrastructure includes; reliable and competitive transport system, information communication technology (ICTs), adequate power supply, modern ports, water and sanitation and accommodation facilities.

The 2016 Africa Infrastructure Development Index shows that Seychelles tops the ladder in terms of infrastructure development ahead of regional giants such as South Africa and Nigeria.

Although countries like Zimbabwe fall under the top 20 list, Egypt is the second in terms of rankings, followed by Libya, South Africa and Mauritius respectively.

Other states in the top bracket include Morocco, Algeria, Botswana, Gabon, Ghana, Namibia, Gambia, Senegal, Swaziland and Kenya. While the above states have notable infrastructure progress, they are still to realise recommended levels when compared to international standard infrastructure benchmarks.  

Of critical interest, the AfDB says; “African countries where tourism constitutes an important sector of their economies are ranked among the top 10 in the Africa Infrastructure Development Index - traditionally they've focused on improving infrastructure to attract visitors.”

The above insight suggests that the level of tourism sector performance in a country is closely tied to the level of infrastructure development. This means tourism destinations with poor infrastructure would continue to play second fiddle to those with robust infrastructure. 

The Africa Tourism Monitor (2016) also shows the continent holds a paltry 5,3% share in worldwide tourism receipts, which represent a 0,4% and 0,2% decrease from the previous year. Similarly, African international tourist arrivals fell to 62,5 million in 2015, a 3,5% drop from 2014. The above statistics show Africa has a huge potential for tourism growth if it champions initiatives, including infrastructure development, which will catapult the sector into one of the top Gross Domestic Product (GDP) contributors.

Other supporting elements include enhancing peace and political stability, increased marketing and skills development.

Experts blame infrastructure gap for straining economic growth in Africa, a continent regarded as one of the poorest in the world despite being endowed with a rich natural resource heritage including precious mineral deposits. In that regard, Bloomberg, reports that Africa’s substandard roads, ports and airports add to the high cost of doing business and general competitiveness, which hampers intra-regional trade.

The regional bank, AfDB, has since championed a programme of action with a bias on infrastructure development and has been reaching out to global pensioners and commercial financers to assist in bridging this gap.  The tourism sector is poised to benefit more from such efforts, which would also unlock opportunities in other economic sectors.

Zimbabwe is among the few countries that have recently scaled up infrastructure development programmes, targeting mainly roads, ICTs, accommodation and aviation facilities. The targeted public works being carried out under the Emergency Road Rehabilitation Programme (ERRP, initiated by President Mnangagwa’s Government and running into millions of dollars, is set to create thousands of jobs in both downstream and upstream industries feeding into the project. The $150 million upgrading of the Victoria Falls International Airport, the estimated $30 Joshua Mqabuko Nkomo International Airport upgrade and the ongoing works at the Robert Mugabe International Airport in Harare, among others, have started impacting positively on the tourism sector.

Apart from creating job opportunities for ordinary people and roping in of local contractors, the value of these investments is already being seen in the growing number of arrivals between 2016 to date and the rise in revenues by operators.

While inequalities of access to infrastructure services between countries seem to be reduced over the past few years, the difference between those on top of the ladder and the bottom on the rank remains significant. However, what is noteworthy, according to AfDB, is that the shift in rankings of countries has mainly been influenced by progress in the ICT sector. This emphasises the urgency towards embracing digital technologies as a powerful vehicle to transform economies, including tourism operations.

The drive towards scaling up tourism and infrastructure development has been endorsed by the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), which sees the synergy between the two sectors as a powerful avenue for sustainable economies. This subject was further tackled at length during the recent UN high-level political forum on Sustainable Development in New York, USA last month.

According to UNWTO, tourism and construction are part of the overall economic value chain. Hence advancing sustainability in the sector and fulfilling its responsibility in the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is a task that can benefit immensely from new technological advances and continuous innovation. This shows tourism has an important role to play in transforming Africa’s economy and aiding its diversification from reliance on the extractive or primary industries.

“With its vast links to other economic activities and direct interaction between consumer and producer, tourism can – if managed well – create positive, long-lasting impacts that go well beyond the sector,” says UNWTO.

“Adapting circular production and consumption patterns that accelerate sustainability is, therefore, key to the long-term health and resilience of tourism businesses and destinations.”

Against this background, the UNWTO has stressed the need for a robust measurement and monitoring mechanism of impacts of tourism and construction activities, including energy and water use efficiency, climate change mitigation, waste management, local sourcing, sustainable land use, biodiversity protection and decent employment, among others.

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