The Tourism Challenge in Africa

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Tourism is an important facet of social-economic development in Africa. In a world where tourist arrivals number close to one billion, the region can do a lot better than the fifty million arrivals each year. In a statement delivered by Tanzania President Jakaya Kikwete about one year ago, he posited the view that however abundant the natural beauty and attractions of East Africa, the region would not enjoy the full benefits of tourism without skilled manpower to exploit these resources.

This view has substance given that tourism is one of the sectors in Africa where the unskilled and semi-skilled abound. The number of people with low skills is huge and includes hotel workers in the hospitality industry, guides and drivers in the transport sector, employees in casinos, performers, artisans, and a host of other jobs that are critical in the tourism industry, but which can contribute a lot more to the sector if they were supplemented by skilled personnel.

The problem of skilled manpower in the tourism industry is not unique to any country in Africa but is replicated across most of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa, and further compounded by emigration of skilled personnel to Western countries. In South Africa, for instance, about half a million skilled people immigrated between 1989 and 2003. This would have been a valuable pool to tap into for development of skilled manpower in the tourism sector. In addition, research in the past has shown evidence that skilled manpower increases job opportunities for the semi-skilled.

It is critically important for African countries to re-assess their talent pool in tourism. Highly skilled chefs and cooks are needed in emerging five star establishments, pilots are crucial for ferrying visitors to lodges and attractions in remote parts of a country, travel consultants are essential for marketing the very best niche products, corporate managers and finance workers are indispensable in hotels, and so on.

If African countries do not develop their human resource base in these and many other critical areas in tourism, then the huge potential in the sector will remain untapped and the industry will continue to lose huge sums of  money to foreign firms who have the capital and personnel. In essence, therefore, developing infrastructure is by itself not enough.

Each country must feel compelled to improve training of its workforce to levels that will offer unsurpassed service comparative with the very best destinations in the world. If a city such as New York can handle forty seven million tourists every year, Africa as a continent is capable of welcoming many more.

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