If there’s ever to be a true bridge of travel and tourism between America and Africa, it may be up to Africans to take the lead in building it.
Among many Americans, Africa has the image of being some sort of nether region — unknown, unsafe, unattractive and unappealing.
Nothing, nothing, nothing and nothing could be further from the truth.
Incredibly beautiful land and seascapes. Flora and fauna found nowhere else on Earth. Growing and vibrant urban scenes. Historical and cultural heritage. Almost every type of niche travel that exists. Wide-open business and investment opportunities. The Mother Continent has got a lot going for it.
And statistics would suggest that a growing number of Americans are starting to “get” all of that.
In 2008, while the number of Americans flying abroad dropped 1.4 percent overall, U.S. air traffic to Africa rose nearly 56 percent. In 2009, when the overall traffic dropped 2 percent, Africa-bound air traffic rose nearly 25 percent. In the first six months of 2010, the most recent numbers I’ve found so far, the number of Americans flying to Africa was up about 17 percent.
Add it all up and it means the flow of U.S. air travelers to the Mother Continent has risen nearly 40 percent in the last two and a half years. — and that was while we were in the middle of a recession.
There’s something else at work here, too.
A MARKET IN WAITING
A fair number of people in a good number of sub-Saharan African countries would love to see their their African-American brethren engaging with their ancestral homelands. That’s a market just waiting to be tapped.
What’s more, a lot of African peoples would love to see Americans in general more involved commercially across the continent, if only to provide a kind of counterweight to the financial clout of China.
A survey of African views of China by Aleksandra Gadzala and Marek Hanusch found that Africans in general may be equally skeptical of both of China and the West, but that:
“Africans who attach particular value to human rights and democracy are overall largely critical of the burgeoning Chinese presence across the continent.”
From shoddy products to indifference toward the health and safety of African workers, the views of many on the Mother Continent toward the Middle Kingdom are changing. A great many Africans view the Chinese as standoffish and condescending, with neither interest in nor respect for African cultures or peoples.
You can read the entire survey report in the form of a PDF file on the Afrobarometer site here. Click on the link marked WP117.
I’ve had it put to me pointblank — and in these words — by African diplomats, journalists and ordinary citizens:
“We see the Europeans here. We see the Chinese here. Where are the Americans?”
It’s a good question. You’d think that America’s travel industry, especially its hard-hit airlines, would be all over this.
If they are, they’ve done an excellent job of hiding their interest.
So far, Delta and United air lines are the only U.S.-based carriers providing direct flights from the continental United States to Africa, especially sub-Saharan Africa — and even then, only to a relative handful of cities.
Let’s be real here. Obstacles abound.
U.S.-based air carriers are justly dubious about airport infrastructure and security in many African capitals. Our own FAA has little confidence in their civil aviation counterparts in most African countries.
Once you get to Africa, the challenges don’t stop.
Whether from other continents or from within Africa herself, the international traveler needs safe and efficient air, rail and road links, and streamlined customs and immigration procedures to move smoothly and easily between countries. Right now, for the most part, they don’t exist.
When travelers find it easier, safer and at times even faster to travel to neighboring African countries by connecting through London or Paris, that’s a problem.
There are people taking on these challenges from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. But if the nations of Africa wait for the United States to take the lead in creating this market, they will be waiting in vain.
To be sure, the major players of the U.S. travel industry probably would love to see a thriving U.S.-Africa travel market, but they have little desire to do the heavy lifting needed to get this ball rolling.
If this great, lucrative bridge is ever to be built, its construction will have to start from the African side of the Atlantic.
But you know what? Africa can do this.
It’s going to take time, hard work, money. It will take peace and political stability within nations. But it also will take something else — an unprecedented level of trust and cooperation among African governments.
Most countries in the world would love to have their own national flag airline representing themaround the globe; reality says “no.” Running a trans-continental airline is forbiddingly expensive, even for countries that can actually afford it.
A regional approach to this could make a world of difference.
Take (or create) perhaps four African airlines — one each serving North, East, West and Southern Africa — and make them capable of true trans-continental operation, with airliners capable of connecting virtually any two major points on the globe in a single direct flight.
The nations of each region would contribute to flight crews, maintenance crews, airport operations. All would share the costs and the profits.
Not having to fly to Europe and connect to a second long flight to reach African destinations would make Africa travel a lot more attractive to a good many Americans, among others.
REGIONAL THINKING, GLOBAL REACH
Sound far-fetched? Not from the technical side. Airliners capable of flying non-stop between African and U.S. destinations already exist — and a handful of them are already in Africa.
Boeing has extended-range versions of its popular 767 and 777 jets. The “ER” stands for extended range. The 767 can fly nearly 7,000 miles, the 777 almost 8,000 miles non-stop, with 200 to nearly 400 passengers.
These African airlines already fly one or more of these aircraft:
- Arik Air (Nigeria)
- Ethiopian Airlines
- Kenya Airways
- TAAG (Angola)
Just this year, Ethiopian became the first African airline to take delivery on a new model, the 777-200LR. The “LR” stands for “Longer Range” and can fly nearly 9,000 miles non-stop.
Airbus also is in this mix with its own long-range airliners, like the A340 series. These African airlines already fly them:
- Arik Air
- Air Mauritius
- Air Nambia
- South African Airways
Once on African ground, smaller regional airlines, brought up to speed with the help of our FAA through efforts such as its Safe Skies for Africa program, could distribute foreign visitors through each African region. And a streamlined visa process similar to that of the European Union could enable them to move from country to country on a single tourist visa.
Those transcontinental African carriers, meanwhile, could use the long reach of their extended-range jumbo jets to tie all of Africa together.
Is all of this radical, even wishful thinking? Perhaps. But as I like to say, small dreams are a waste of sleep.
When your continent holds 12 percent of the world’s population but accounts for less than 1 percent of its air traffic, it’s time to start thinking — and doing things — differently.
Especially when 20 percent of all the tourism-related jobs in Africa are generated by travelers arriving by air.
Africa can overcome this challenge. But she cannot wait for outsiders to lead the way.
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