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Overseas Development Institute (ODI)

Can tourism help reduce poverty in Africa?

Overseas Development Institute (ODI)

Briefing Paper - March 2006

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Many African governments either do not take tourism seriously or fail to make the link between tourism and poverty reduction – or both. Tourism ministries focus on marketing and monitoring arrival numbers; other ministries undervalue an export that is not visible on the quayside and is often merged administratively with conservation. Both miss out on the potential to link national development strategies with tourism.

Some countries with very limited tourism potential have emphasised tourism in their Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs). Some with strong existing tourism virtually ignore the sector (Roe, 2004). Even where countries with an important tourism sector have recognised its pro-poor benefits in PRSPs (Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia), this support is often not reflected in sectoral policies and plans. Given strong donor influence on the agenda of the first round of PRSPs, though, this may simply reflect their ambivalence towards the sector. In short, consistent support for the sector does not exist.

Many development agencies have a relationship with tourism that is ambivalent at best and, at times, hostile. This has been attributed to the prevalence of generalisations such as, tourism is elitist, it provides mainly menial seasonal jobs and causes environmental and social degradation (Goodwin, H, 2005). Notable exceptions to this in the donor community are GTZ and the Dutch government that supports large numbers of SNV tourism projects. The Asian Development Bank – but not its African sister organisation –and European Commission are the main multilateral financiers of the sector. The UK Department for International Development (DFID) embraced the need for private sector export-led growth, and launched ‘pro-poor tourism’ internationally in 1999, but has subsequently shifted away from specific support to the sector.

An analysis of total bilateral and multilateral disbursements by the OECD DAC during 2003 and 2004 revealed total support for tourism at US$153 million – an average annual figure of US$77 million. This tourism spend represents about 0.1% of total net official aid flows, that amounted to US$77 billion in 2003 (DAC, 2005). Interestingly, a number of the larger NGOs, philanthropic foundations and environmentalists, most prominently Conservation International and the World Wildlife Fund, have entered this ‘gap’ in support for tourism.

Tourism researchers have generally failed to position themselves in the void between the development industry – who often do not appreciate the poverty reducing impacts of tourism – and the mainstream tourism industry – which generally does not see reducing poverty as its priority or responsibility (Shepherd, A and Fritz, 2005). This has resulted in a lack of empirical analysis to inform policy decisions. Although there are large numbers of micro-level case studies, often from an anthropological, sociological or environmental perspective, and plentiful tables showing tourism receipts as a contribution to foreign exchange, there is a dearth of reliable data focusing on the economic impact of tourism in developing country destinations (Sinclair, MT, 1998). Particularly scarce is data on the impact of tourism on poor people.

Instead, a surprising proportion of tourism studies literature catalogues the perils of the sector. The attack on mainstream international tourism was launched from the dependency perspective in the 1970s and 1980s and, more recently, from a somewhat reformulated ‘alternative’ or ‘sustainable’ tourism vantage point (Cornelissen, S, 2005). According to these critiques, international tourism in developing countries is almost inevitably exploitative of the environment, local economy, culture and people. In fact, tourism seems best avoided unless it is so smallscale, indigenously owned, environmentally sensitive and totally ‘authentic’ that it disappears from the mainstream view. Allowing our pro-poor focus to be deflected away from mainstream tourism operations – to the comfortable ghetto of small, niche operations – is a strategic mistake because it is mainstream tourism that has the economic muscle to seriously tackle African poverty at scale.

However, there is a quiet, but significant, reappraisal of this standoff. The tourism industry, owing in par t to demands from tourists for a more ethical approach, is beg inning to change. In September 2005, the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) received support from the UN, public, private and civil society decision-makers worldwide when tourism was identified as one of the most effective tools for sustainable growth in the world’s poorest countries. The UNWTO Sustainable Tourism – Eliminating Poverty (ST-EP) Programme is another indication of growing commitment to enhance the development performance of tourism.

It is time for a re-examination of the evidence of the potential role for tourism as part of a broader pro-poor growth strategy in Africa.

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