When it comes to Africa travel and the African-American travel market, it takes two to miss a golden opportunity.
On one side of the Atlantic, you can find a lot of Black Americans who say they’d love to see Africa someday. On the other side, you find a lot of African nations looking for more tourism that would love to welcome them.
In between, you find…not much.
Black Americans are traveling the world in growing numbers, but the numbers traveling to the Mother Continent are nowhere near what they could or should be — and the reasons why have nothing whatever to do with ebola.
So why haven’t the two sides hooked up in the name of travel and tourism?
On the whole, we Americans — and Black Americans, in particular — really don’t know Africa. What little we do know, we tend to draw from the crisis du jour menu served up daily in mainstream media and the world’s single greatest source of misinformation: “I heard.”
YouTube boasts a whole collection of videos devoted to asking people what they know about Africa, including African-Americans at HBCUs like Howard University. The answers range from head-shaking to embarrassing to downright cringeworthy.
A TWO-SIDED GAP
Africa has always been an afterthought in the United States. Our social and business ties to the Mother Continent are sparse compared with the rest of the world.
America’s schools have never taught kids about Africa in the same way it teaches about all things European. And while African food, art, music, film are global staples, you find precious little representation of any of that in US mass media.
The gap of knowledge and understanding between Africans and African-Americans is huge. But the blame for that gap cannot be laid entirely on this side of the Atlantic. There are two uncomfortable realities here:
- The nations of Africa have put too little effort into developing the US market.
- Safari travel in Africa has been over-marketed and over-promoted, to the detriment of African travel and tourism overall.
You find the best evidence of the first point at travel trade shows.
The biggest ones are in Europe, and ITB Berlin in Germany is by far the biggest. We’re talking 10,000 exhibitors from 185 countries — and about 50 of those countries are African. Government tourism ministries, private tourism boards, tour operators, travel agencies. Africa represents at ITB Berlin.
WHERE ARE THE AFRICANS?
Here in the United States, Unicomm annually puts on the Travel and Adventure Show series — seven travel trade expositions in Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Diego and San Francisco.
The perfect chance for African travel providers and tour operators to connect with travel agents and potential visitors here in the States.
The total number of African tourism bodies, public or private, represented at those seven shows: One. Rwandan Tourism, with whom I’ll be meeting this weekend at the LA show in Long Beach, CA.
The grand-daddy of US travel expos, the oldest and largest single show in the country, is the NY Times Travel Show. Their African exhibitors? Nine, maybe. Out of 55 sovereign African nations…nine.
Then, there’s the whole safari thing. Pick any ten people at random and tell them you’re contemplating a trip to Africa. At least seven out of ten will ask you: “Are you going on a safari?”
More likely, it’ll be all ten.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with safari travel. Done right, with respect for the environment and the local people who depend on it, it can be one of the most unforgettable experiences of your life. Small wonder that safari travel is the first thing that comes to mind among Western travelers.
The problem is that it tends to be the only thing that comes to mind.
NOT JUST SAFARIS
Talk to Black Americans, especially younger ones, who have an interest in Africa, and you’ll find out that their interest often reach far beyond wildlife. They want to know about the history and heritage — not just as it relates to the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but what happened before and what came after. They want a taste of Africa’s many cultures. They want to check out the music, the food, the styles. Everything.
And Africa has a mind-boggling amount of attractions to offer them in all of those areas. But Africa’s nations aren’t reaching out to tell them about it.
On the whole, the African and the African-American are much more culturally attuned to Europe than they are to each other, no surprise given our respective histories. And it shows in our disconnect when it comes to travel and tourism.
We’re like two blindfolded men sitting in a darkened room, each waiting for the other to get up and turn the lights on.
If Black Americans are going to take Africa seriously as a destination — and if Africa wants a bigger piece of the roughly $48 billion annual African-American travel market — that needs to change.
On our side, we need to insist that our schools and our news media do a better job of teaching us about Africa. And if they refuse to do it, then we need to start learning on our own. We need to reach out to the African expat communities we have in this country and start making some connections. They can teach us much, if we’re willing to listen and learn.
Meanwhile, Africa’s decisionmakers in the travel industry need to reach out to potential African-American visitors in the same way that they reach over to Europe. They need to show up at the trade shows here. They need to advertise on Black American media. They need to work with Black American expats in African countries and African-American travel professionals over here.
International travel markets don’t build themselves.
It’s time to close this great divide.
Greg Gross is the Publisher/Sr. Editor of “I’m Black and I Travel!,” and the owner of the Trips by Greg travel agency, specializing in cultural and heritage travel worldwide.