Sustainable Tourism as a Tool for Development: The African Case Study


With the launch of the SDGs in 2015, a spotlight has been placed on some of the world’s biggest issues and the possibility of shaping human impact on these issues, for good or bad. The SDG Goal 12 (Sustainable Production and Consumption) aims at reducing ecological footprints by changing the pattern of production and consumption of goods and resources. The global tourism industry, being an integral part of goods and/or resource consumption, is as a result burdened with the responsibility of contributing to sustainability. Although, tourism as an industry might never record all the attributes of a sustainable sector, work towards mitigating risks and negative consequences should be a paramount focus. 

The concept of sustainability means different things to different people. Sustainable Tourism is tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities (UN World Tourism Organisation, 2004). It is generally aimed at maintaining a high level of tourist satisfaction, ensuring a meaningful experience to tourists while raising their awareness about sustainability issues and promoting sustainable tourism practices amongst them.

The concept of sustainable tourism is important in order to mitigate the negative effects of tourism on the environment. According to UNEP (2011), tourism is expected to increase energy consumption by 111%; greenhouse gas emissions by 105%; solid waste disposal by 252%; and water consumption by 150%.

The global tourism industry has grown to be one of the largest and most lucrative industries in the world and it contributes significantly to global revenue and job creation. It is estimated that 1 in every 11 jobs are provided by the global tourism industry. About 9% of global GDP and 6% of world export are generated by this industry. Although the industry experiences occasional down times, international tourism industry has shown a consistent growth since 1950 which recorded a 25 million global tourist travel to 995 million in 2011.


The potential of Africa’s tourism is untapped. Tourism is one of Africa’s most promising sectors in terms of development.  Africa accounts for 15% of the world population; it receives only about 3% of world tourism (AfDB, 2014). Revenues from tourism for many fast-growing economies in Africa double the amount of donor aid. Tremendous opportunities exist to further expand tourism across the African continent.

According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), 63.6 million international tourists arrived in Africa in 2012, compared to 17.4 million visitors in 1990. The top six countries for international tourist receipts in 2012 were, in descending order: Egypt ($9.94 billion), followed by South Africa ($9.994 billion), Morocco ($6.711 billion), Tunisia ($2.183 billion), Tanzania ($1.564 billion) and Mauritius ($1.477 billion).

Furthermore, the African Development Bank recognises the opportunity Africa has in tourism capitalizing on its young population, which has about 70% of its population below the age of 25. The World Bank also reports that tourism accounts for 8.9 per cent of East Africa’s GDP, 7.2 per cent of North Africa’s, 5.6 of West Africa’s and 3.9 per cent of Southern Africa’s.

The large and expanding nature of the global tourism industry suggests that there is still room to grow the industry further and capitalize more on its ability to positively impact global economies of countries whose livelihood and economic empowerment is low, especially in Africa.  In a bid, to expand the industry and emphasise the importance of sustainable tourism, some African countries have already implemented measures with tourism operators and communities. In 2015, Ghana launched an initiative by Africa House in collaboration with its Ministry of Culture Tourism and Creative Arts to introduce rural tourism in underdeveloped areas. Rural tourism encouraged engaging in responsible and sustainable practices by learning more about local cultural contexts as well as exploring unknown landscapes from an environmental perspective.

Also, Morocco launched Vision 2020, which has the ambitious goal to be one of the top 20 tourist destinations in the world by using in-country resources and practicing sustainable development. This approach to sustainability is based on long-term ecosystem management and incorporating local participation in tourism sector. This is expected to increase job opportunities in the long run.

As similar to most African countries, Kenya is an attractive tourist destination because of its natural and cultural endowment. In Kenya, beach tourism, cultural tourism, and sports tourism are major revenue earners.  Also like many other African countries, the Kenyan tourism sector has experienced a number of downtimes due to insecurity (2007/2008 crisis and 2013/2014 terrorist attack) and political instability (2007 presidential election), which has negatively affected  influx and consequently reducing receipts from the sector. Despite this, Kenya beat the odds to consolidate her position as a premier tourist destination in the world in 2008. Presently, the tourism sector is the third largest contributor to Kenya’s GDP (contributing more than 10% from multiple economic value chain analysis) and also Kenya’s third largest foreign exchange earner. Further, this sector has been identified as one of the sectors that will contribute significantly towards socio – economic development and poverty alleviation in Kenya. The numbers of tourist numbers have been growing in Kenya since the 1990’s peaking in 2007 to just below two million tourists just before the post – election violence (Kenya’s worst political instability since independence).

Egypt has just earned the top investment destination in Africa according to Rand Merchant Bank’s latest report on ‘where to invest in Africa’, due to its superior economic activities. This is as a result of the strategy to improve its investment and business environment through several contracts signed with international companies from different sectors of which the tourism sector is a crucial component.

Recognising the importance of international tourism and fostering better understanding among people everywhere, the United Nations General Assembly declared 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development while adopting the Sustainable development Goals. In addition, World Tourism Day, introduced in 1980 to foster awareness among the international community on the importance of tourism and its social, cultural, political and economic values, is celebrated on September 27 every year. 

Although, the future of tourism in Africa holds great potential, its expansion and development depends on better infrastructure, open borders, and improved marketing to niche sectors such as adventure and eco-travelers. More importantly, creating capacity in Africa to develop and manage a competitive tourism industry is highly fundamental.

Accordingly, World Tourism Day 2017 presents a unique opportunity to raise awareness on the contribution of sustainable tourism to socio-economic development. As we celebrate with the theme: Sustainable Tourism as a Tool for Development; how can Africa take advantage of her rich natural resources to emerge as a global transformative force to advance sustainable development in all its three pillars?Further, unique products and services remain key pillars in the development of any tourism destination. The range and quality of the tourism product offering defines the competitiveness and attractiveness of tourism destinations and the visitors’ experience. As tourism to Africa evolves to become an increasingly important socio-economic sector, it is essential for countries in the region to adopt effective strategies for tourism product development that promote a more competitive offer and comply with the need and desires of prospect visitors whilst aligning with global tenets on sustainable tourism. It is expedient to note that organisation-wide commitment, strategies and actions in favour of sustainable tourism across all industries around the globe is a major determinant of the success of Sustainable Tourism in the world.

Apart from the aforementioned, the UNWTO recommends the following:

Maintaining competitiveness by monitoring the market trends closely and making changes as necessary;

Increased public-private partnership in order to increase productivity. This also encourages recognition of small to medium enterprises;

Reinforced emphasis on regional cooperation to ease tourist movement;

Aggressive Infrastructure development

The global tourism industry is, undeniably, an important though neglected sector. If proper attention is given, it is expected to contribute to socio-economic transformation across the continent as envisioned in the various plans for Tanzania and Burundi (2025), Rwanda (2020), Kenya (2030) and Uganda (2040).

Consequently, the need for African countries to take advantage of the cultural and natural heritage in order to consequently improve its socio-economic performance becomes an imperative towards a sustainable global tourism industry.


The United Nations World Tourism Organisation World Tourism Day 2017 Press Release –

Kenya National Bureau of Statistics Kenya Facts and Figures 2012 -

Bichaka Fayissa, Christian Nsiah, Badassa Tadasse 2007: The Impact of Tourism on Economic Growth and Development in Africa

Moses M Okello, 2014: Economic Contribution, Challenges and Way Forward for Wildlife-Based Tourism Industry in Eastern African Countries

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