The executive director of the Africa Travel Association has a wide-ranging telephone interview with IBIT about the promises and challenges of African tourism, including the re-emergence of Zimbabwe as a destination.
For six years, Edward Bergman has headed the Africa Travel Association. The son of South African emigrés, he now devotes much of his life to bringing others to the Mother Continent in ways that benefit the host as well as the visitor.
Just ahead of the association’s annual US-Africa Tourism Seminar in Washington DC, he looks at where African tourism is today and where it may be going.
Q. What would you say have been the most important developments in African tourism during your tenure with the Africa Travel Association?
A. Certainly the increase in air access. You didn’t have American airlines flying into Africa. Now you have two. Ethiopian Airlines having 10 (Boeing 787) Dreamliners, that’s a very historical thing. You didn’t have Arik Air that was serving the Nigerian market. Arik has potential to re-create the old Air Afrique routes. They could be a one-stop shop for going to any country they serve in West Africa once that happens.
The (2010 FIFA) World Cup in South Africa. That showed the world that Africa could compete. South Africa made it clear that it wasn’t a South African World Cup but an African World Cup. That really was very big.
Nobody imagined six years years ago that we’d have an African-American president who had family in Africa. It’s a major thing for Africa and for African tourism.
Q. Travelers are always looking for the undiscovered gem. What or where would you say is Africa’s undiscovered gem at present?
A. If I was to predict, I would say destinations such as Libya will become hot. I’m told the cultural tourism product there is spectacular. We were actually looking at having a meeting in Libya before things changed paths. We were actually being encouraged by many people, including Americans.
I think Central Africa could become very interesting. All this depends on safety and security.
West Africa has huge potential, once people can travel more easily with respect to visas.
Q. What are the prospects of getting better air connections to Africa from the US West Coast?
A. We know that a large number of travelers going to Africa are coming from the West Coast. South African Airways has developed a partnership with JetBlue. That may be the direction in which the airlines are going. Code-sharing.
Q. In travel industry trade shows around the United States, the emphasis is almost entirely on safari travel. Doesn’t Africa have more to offer than just wildlife?
A. We haven’t exclusively focused on safaris. ATA has always stood for diversified tourism products. Cultural tourism, heritage tourism, culinary tourism, going to Africa and meeting the people — this is why more people are traveling to Africa. The things we’ve been talking about all these years are coming to light. All of a sudden, it’s cool to go to Rwanda. Who would’ve thought that 14 years ago?
As for the trade shows in the United States, more of the African exhibitors are coming from the private sectors. In Europe, they tend to come more from the governments of the African countries. They’re not investing in the US market. That leaves a gap that the private sector is filling, and the majority of the private sector exhibitors are selling safari tourism products.
Q. What do you see as some of the areas of greatest potential for African tourism?
A. Cruise tourism. The cruise industry is very interested in West Africa; I think we’re going to see some interesting developments there. It needs a set price to make it affordable. Also, the African countries that serve as cruise destinations have to be very firm in making sure that these cruises deliver real benefit to their countries and not just to the cruise lines.
Convention tourism. There are a lot of organizations, a lot of African-American organizations, that could bring their conventions to Africa. I don’t think there’s that much taking place currently. There’s great potential in that.
How about youth tourism? Wouldn’t it be wonderful for African-American youth to travel to Africa while they’re in high school? Educational trips involving multiple countries. I think the cruise industry has some real potential there. Again, the keys would be doing it in a way that was not pricey and in a way that benefits Africa.
Then there’s the Internet. It’s old news to us, but it’s not old news in Africa. As the Internet becomes faster in Africa, it’s going to help the industry. Lodges are being rated on TripAdvisor. You can book stays on Expedia. African tour operators can market themselves directly.
Q.The annual ATA World Congress is going to be held this year at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. What do you see as the major issues in African travel to be discussed this year?
I think culinary tourism is something we need to talk about. We’re going to try to find a way to put this on the agenda, to find ways for African countries to showcase their food. In Victoria Falls, where we’re holding the congress this spring, you can have the African experience. But other than that, once you get outside the capital city of Harare, the hotels are serving Western food and that food is often being flown in and that just doesn’t make any sense.
When you go to Africa, you shouldn’t be having frozen fish that’s imported.
We need to look at striking a good balance between cultural and environmental tourism.
We really need to look at Zimbabwe itself, the difference between the perception of the country that we’re given by the Western media and the reality on the ground. It’s a lot different than one fears it is. They will be participating in the seminar on Friday. We also will be organizing a road show for Zimbabwe.
Tourism has always been important to the Zimbabwean economy. Now that things are settling politically, there seems to be this renewed interest, especially from the West. There’s a definite commitment to bringing back the US visitors. The US ambassador in Zimbabwe is a very strong proponent of the tourism industry in Zimbabwe and has given very strong support for this congress.
Q. What are some of the potential and challenges you see in further developing African tourism?
A. I would say East Africa…as infrastructure grows, tourism will grow. New regions within countries need to be explored (for their tourism potential).
From the US, we still do not have direct flight service to East Africa. One has to go through Europe or South Africa. There’s no direct flight to Kenya or Tanzania. There’s a market for that. The question is when that will happen.
From the US market, I also think that West Africa has great potential. It all depends on how political events play out, especially in Senegal, which was doing well (prior to the current presidential election) and has the potential to do very, very well.
(African) countries need to do more marketing and promotion in the United States, especially when it comes to event tourism. There’s great potential for that in the US market.
Q. Where do you see the Africa Travel Association headed in the next few years?
A. ATA needs to be seen as an organization that belongs to Africa politically. Some still see ATA as an American organization. We’ve worked very closely with the African Union Commission, for infrastructure, energy and now, tourism. We recently signed a (memorandum of understanding) that declares ATA as a partner with the AU…that outlines the beginnings of a roadmap in promoting tourism.
The next step is to move our political headquarters to Africa. We would like to see the ATA headquarters in Ethiopia, where the African Union has its headquarters. It then becomes an African regional organization
Edited by P.A.Rice