Towards tourism diversification in Southern Africa


Prosper Ndlovu


AS Southern Africa pushes towards diversifying her economy in a bid to broaden the job market and alleviate poverty, the tourism sector could play a leading role in delivering desired quick wins across the region.

For many years the region’s attractiveness, the same way as entire Africa in general, has largely been based on wildlife and natural destination sites as key draw cards with limited value addition and related investments to consolidate the same.

The term diversification is used to explain distribution of investment across different economic sectors with the aim of improving the economic spread and minimising over-dependence on few sectors. In the area of tourism, economic scholars suggest the sector can register significant growth through diversification of its wider product base, and developing new markets with the aim of repositioning the destinations.

Diversification, in this regard, is seen as the panacea to distributing the tourism population and relieving pressure on congested resorts, widening income generation and promoting an appreciation of national heritage. An assessment of tourism trends globally has shown that there are huge opportunities for a more diversified tourism product model, one that employs a blended approach that recognises synergies between different inputs of the tourism product mix.

Sporting activities, arts and culture festivals, meetings, conferences and exhibitions have become modern hallmarks of a successful tourism industry in mature economies, adding flavour to the traditional wildlife and natural attractions.

A 2017 study on “Tourism diversification in Botswana - a stakeholder perspective” by Amogelang Tsholofelo Nare, published by the African Journal on Hospitality, Tourism and Leisure, Vol 6, notes that tourism in Southern Africa is largely nature based and Botswana is no exception, as it has been sustained over the years through its abundant wildlife resources.

The study explains that exposing destination to intense competition from neighbouring countries and the ever changing tourist preferences is a challenge in the absence of diversification. It notes that tourism could be a viable means of supporting the diversification in the regional economy, which is concentrated in the extractive sector and agriculture.

In view of the above considerations, it is high time regional governments and their key partners invested more in previously marginalised segments such as events industries, upgrading sporting facilities and work with communities to reposition the local culture as a key tourism asset.

In developed markets, studies indicate that a diversified tourism industry has been credited for increasing quality of a country’s image, diversifying the job market, enhancing seasonality of a destination and increasing length of stay and promotion of lesser known destinations hence improving the quality of life of the community.

Through diversification, SADC destinations could enhance their distinctive and competitive levels in the market and be able to satisfy the modern tourist who tends to be sophisticated and demands variety of products to consume. A combination of such interventions, aided by deliberate infrastructure development programmes, harmonised regional policy support measures and robust marketing, will no doubt boost the tourism industry’s competitiveness within the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and ensure sustainability that yields concrete gains in job creation and overall economic growth. 

In view of competition between countries and among destinations with similar attractions, an examination of policy and research documents indicate that reliance on primary tourism products – wildlife and nature products, alone, is no longer a viable pitch to attracting increased arrivals to a particular destination.

Researchers have, thus, advised destination countries to further focus their attention on investing in socio-cultural attributes that create a niche effect and makes their sites unique and stand alone from the rest. Aspects such as accommodation, medical service, food service, art and history, monuments, range of sporting, way of life, individual buildings and transportation, have a lasting impact on visitors too.

In India, for example, medical tourism is a big thing. Research insight strongly suggests that these characteristics should be blended in the countries’ tourism marketing strategy, be packaged and promoted appropriately to ensure they are readily available to visitors and thus more readily consumed by them.

Southern Africa boasts a rich socio-cultural and political history and stands to benefit immensely from such a diversified model with unequalled tourism experience to travellers. Because of limited diversity in the tourism product mix, the sub-region has recently become a target destination for investors seeking to establish additional activities in which they stand to reap huge earnings at the expense of locals. 

Just last week, a delegation from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was in Zimbabwe where it met the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority (ZTA) and was taken through different destinations. Interestingly, the delegation directed its interest in diversified investment opportunities in sports, medical service, grand prix motor racing tracks and safari tourism. The team is already salivating Victoria Falls, which has been designated as a Special Economic Zone for tourism and financial services.

“We are excited to have the UAE show such keen interest in our destination for their business, new facets of tourism will be opened up such as medical tourism and grand prix whilst also boosting Safari tourism,” permanent secretary in the Ministry of Tourism and Hospitality Industry, Dr Thokozile Chitepo, said while receiving the delegation. The visit was a follow up expedition in line with an MoU signed between ZTA and Feonirich LLC recently. Feonirich’s head of delegation, Prince Adebayor Bamidele remarked that Zimbabwe was an untapped market and looks forward to invest in Zimbabwe. Indeed Zimbabwe and Southern Africa at large are open for vast opportunities to those who can invest in diversified tourism products. Locals would better smell the coffee as well, and grab these opportunities early.

Writing on the tourism product development, in a Journal on Tourism Management (2015), scholars - Abdelati Benur and Bill Bramwell, contend that diversification is critical to modern tourism growth. To them tourism products are fundamentally centred on experiences of the consumer and that those experiences are central to choice and satisfaction. This means that destinations should give due consideration to both tangible and non tangible aspects of primary products and evaluate interconnections between them as there could be synergies or tensions. Southern African tourism industry operators, as such, need to comprehend these complexities and how they impact on their individual products. This implies that development of processes that enhance concentration of activity and diversity of tourism products is the secret to earning more in the sector. Diversification would further ensure that tourism activities are not concentrated on few resort areas such as the Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and large national parks, but that proceeds are also spread at community level, where thousands of ordinary people stand to tell exciting stories and exhibit their indigenous historic experiences and cultural artefacts. Such an approach has the potential to boost domestic tourism and add more earnings into the sector’s overall contribution to gross domestic product (GDP).  

The urgency towards diversification of the region’s economy is succinctly captured by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD)’s 2018 report on the “Structural Transformation and Export Diversification in Southern Africa”, which points to sluggish structural transformation within the region’s economy across sectors in the last few years. The report urges SADC states to urgently align their economic strengths and capabilities to enhance diversification and industrial upgrading that would cushion the region against volatilities typical of raw commodities and ensure high value earnings.




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