As mentioned in an earlier post, I had the good fortune to travel to Kenya in November for the 40th Annual ATA World Congress. ATA, for the unfamiliar, is the Africa Travel Association, the “leading global trade association promoting travel and tourism to Africa and strengthening intra-Africa partnerships.” Simple math (and the website) reveals that the ATA was founded in 1975, and with slightly deeper investigation, it’s possible to frame the association as a resource capable of tremendous good, not only for Africa as a whole but for its 58 UN-recognized constituent nations, as well.
At this 40th World Congress, held in the same city—Nairobi, Kenya—as the first one ever, the agenda was ambitious and yet entirely simple: to bring together travel industry players from across the world to discuss the future of African tourism. Contacts were to be made, and they were. The conversation was to be open and honest, and for the most part, it was. Inhibitors to travel in Africa were discussed at length, and largely invalidated. Behind the scenes, the structure offered to media participants was loose in such a way as to be breakable—which at least was true to the landscape of solo travel in Africa these days.
Tourism, of course, is one of modern society’s greatest economic generators; in developing countries like some in Africa, it is often the greatest. In addition, it is worth noting that a destination’s ability to receive, impress and make comfortable international travelers is closely correlated with its status in the international community, both in terms of its perception and, less directly, of how and with whom it engages on the global stage. The nations of Africa find themselves grading out differently in this assessment, but nearly all (again, there are 58 of them) are better suited for travel than most tourists think.
The subject of perception vs reality came up over and over again during the five days of talks, panels, TED-style presentations, and showcases. Africa, as I had come to know many years earlier, is a place of incredible travel and human potential, and much of it remains untapped on large scale. As a continent Africa is sometimes troubled, but on a more granular level, there is so much that I, as someone grounded by his own African travel experiences, will return to see at my first opportunity. For the sake of this point, here are ten items on my personal Africa to-do list (keep in mind that this is a list of things I have not done or seen yet, which is why it does not include the Great Pyramids, Egypt’s White Desert, Cape Town, gorilla trekking in Uganda’s Impenetrable Forest, Victoria Falls, etc.):
- The Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela (Ethiopia)
- Simien National Park (Ethiopia)
- Lamu (Kenya)
- Avenue of the Baobabs (Madagascar)
- Tsingy de Bemaraha Strict Nature Reserve (Madagascar)
- Great Moque of Djenné (Mali)
- Marrakech (Morocco)
- Sossusvlei, Namib-Naukluft National Park (Namibia)
- Pico Cão Grande (São Tomé and Príncipe)
- Anse Source d’Argent, La Digue (Seychelles)
I left a ton off this list because I want to walk around at a ton of places in Africa—far more than would be helpful injected here. And at the congress, the same point was essentially made: There is so much to be experienced, and the average traveler hasn’t experienced any of it. Why? A lot of reasons, many of which were discussed in Nairobi. Some parts of Africa are in 2015 still very remote. Others lack the infrastructure, resources and/or western standards to accommodate modern tourism needs. Long flights (and especially those with complex routes, by necessity) are expensive. Much more rarely, there are coups and other dangers that partition entire cities or countries off the tourist map—but of course that is a problem not unique to Africa.
There are issues that must be addressed, to be sure, and there are singular places you should probably avoid when you look over the map. There is much to be excited about that is not yet available. But the tide of globalization is impartial, and as far as any traveler is concerned, Africa is ready—right now—to be the next great canvas for pins and check-ins and backpacking selfies, or however it is that your travels add tangible color to your life.
As noted by the likes of Peter Greenberg, countless tourism ministers and others in Nairobi, fear of dangers false or exaggerated extinguishes many African travel ambitions before they have a chance to really burn. Exhibit one: The Ebola insanity of the past year. On the more justifiable side of the spectrum, there is the tragedy that befell at least 67 at Nairobi’s Westgate Mall in 2013. As Greenberg pointed out in his keynote address, on the day of the Westgate nightmare, it was business as usual just blocks away from the mall, just out of view of the international media. On the occasion that I walked by the refurbished Westgate Mall on my own Nairobi visit, it was dressed festively in holiday lights. It looked nice.
For what it’s worth, the November 13 Paris tragedy shook the city and the world while I was in Kenya. In the wake of any event, in Europe or Africa or the United States, I believe it is fair to assess the safety of a place on a larger scale—and to fight directly the intentions of terrorism by applying that same logic and decision-making to every travel decision forever, no matter what it comes in the wake of. Both individuals and societies are better served by more information than by less, and by vision informed by the past rather than blinded by it. Such is the approach that led me to find such resonance in GeoSure, a new app, at the congress. As was shared with attendees, GeoSure’s mission is to crowd-source, contemporize and granularize safety advisories across the world. In other words, its intent is to entrust travelers with better, more dynamic data from which to base their travel decisions. This is a service of particular need in much of Africa, and in the Westgate example, it would in theory be able to place the tragedy in better context for anyone interested in knowing more.
The rampant misunderstanding of African geography remains another huge obstacle. Africa is a continent of staggering size and variety. That is too often forgotten, if it were ever known at all. At this congress, this dilemma was discussed in the contexts of 1) fear and 2) travel opportunity. To the first, the most striking example: the Ebola panic drove down tourism in Kenya, despite the fact that London is about the same distance from Liberia as Nairobi is (around 4500 miles). Somalia has been pirates and trouble for some years now, but that is comically irrelevant when you are building an itinerary in South Africa.
And in terms of opportunity, the continent has so much to see and experience that still flies under the radar. The much-cherished safari experience alone varies by country, by preserve, by landscape, by vehicle (or no vehicle, as in a walking safari), and on and on, and from there, the range of consumable African travel experiences—often life-changing experiences—simply explodes to include near-every iteration: incredible beaches with turquoise waters (like the “world’s best beach” in the Seychelles and those in Watamu, Kenya, where I stayed for two nights), incredible limestone formations (like in Egypt’s White Desert and Madagascar’s rock forest), volcanoes of all severities (like in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda), pink lakes (like Senegal’s Lake Retba), intimate wildlife encounters (like at the David Sheldrick baby elephant sanctuary), cultural epiphanies (like those offered by the jumping Masai warriors I met and the Zulu and the colorful Hausa of the west), and more.
Overall, the takeaway from the 40th Annual ATA World Congress was that there is much to the African story that is not being told. This was not new, but nonetheless it was encouraging to see such focus turned toward solutions as Africa looks toward its collective future. State Department travel advisories can be blunt and out of date, even politically motivated, and that is why efforts like GeoSure’s are substantial. The perception of Africa, it was reiterated, does not do the reality justice. There is a fragility to the perceived Africa that makes it uniquely susceptible to travel lulls, and that’s because there is not yet enough real travel feedback on specific destinations to dilute the stream of the status quo. People dream of African safaris without knowing how many ways there are to see their dreams realized, or even how much more there is beyond the bush (but definitely see the bush). That is changing, but sometimes, change is slow.
We can speed it up, by traveling to Kenya and South Africa and Cameroon and the Seychelles and coming back. We can also attend the 41st Annual ATA World Congress in Kigali, Rwanda—a city that on my visit in 2013 was so much more than I’d ever thought it could be. For my next move, see the list above.