TOURISM directly and indirectly supports 20.5 million jobs and represents 8.1% of Africa’s gross domestic product (GDP). In some countries, more than 50% of GDP comes from tourism.
Across Africa, we have unique sites that tell a compelling story about who we are, and the road that humanity has travelled. It stretches from the earliest origins of humankind to our recent struggle for freedom and equality. Chapters of this story have been written in many countries of our continent.
Where else on earth can you witness the incredible sight of millions of wildebeest stampeding across wide grassy plains, crossing raging rivers as they hurtle towards new grazing grounds in their annual migration?
In fact, Africa is the home of the original story: it is the birthplace of humankind.
We all started here
At South Africa’s Cradle of Humankind, hominid fossils tell us about our common ancestry. At Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge, evidence of the early tools made by our ancestors show how we became hunters and social beings. Where on earth can you find sites that tell such a powerful story?
Little Foot specimen found in South Africa. A dating made in 2015 estimates it to be 3.67 million years old. (Photo/AFP).
Tourists are astounded by the many wonders on our continent. Churches carved out of solid rock at Lalibela in Ethiopia, and the multi-storey mosque built from mud at Djenne in Mali, reflect how we learnt to engineer the natural environment for our social needs. Tourists marvel at the remains of 200 pyramids at Meroe in Sudan, the site of one of the wealthiest cities in the Ancient Kingdom of Kush, where they can imagine the splendour of Africa, thriving in a bygone age.
And, much closer to home, is the site of the once prosperous city at Great Zimbabwe, where iron and copper tools were found, along with gold jewelry.
Tourists can take an emotional journey through the East African towns of Lamu in Kenya, and Stone Town in Zanzibar, and hear stories of slavery that will give them a better understanding of what the people of this continent have been subjected to, and make them appreciate what it means to be free.
Places like Robben Island, and the original home of Nelson Mandela in Soweto, have become meaningful for the entire world. They have become iconic symbols of our recent political history, signifying the triumph of freedom over oppression.
When tourists see ancient fossils that reflect our origins as a species, it makes a spiritual connection deep within them. These fossils provide the evidence that we all come from Africa, that we are all part of one family of humankind, regardless of where we happen to live today.
Connection to soul
This is a connection to the soul of Africa, to the history that brought us together, and the aspirations for the future that bind us together. The unique sites that entice people to visit us, our warm welcome, our vibrant music, dancing and art, the stories told by the people themselves: these are the things that connect tourists to the soul of the people of Africa.
Although the continent is overwhelmed by social and economic challenges, we have to rise against these challenges, and commit to work together to address them for the future of tourism. Our point of departure is that we are united in our resolve to build the positive brand of Africa as a continent of unparalleled tourism opportunities, and to enhance tourism as a mainstream economic sector – a sector of hope for Africa and its people. Africa should strive to harness its cultural and historical resources to market and present Africa as a truly unique and authentic destination for the world to visit.
I believe that it is within our collective power to turn the aspiration of a united, successful African tourism sector into a living reality that will bring lasting benefits to millions of people.
-The author is South Africa’s National Minister of Tourism.