Tourism and rural development in Africa.

Kepha Olwal and James Maina

Rural development comprises initiatives aligned to the Sustainable Development Goals, (SDGs), to enhance quality of life for rural dwellers. Africa has a high population density in rural areas, with over 80% of its people in residing in rural places. Sub Saharan Africa has a bigger population of younger people, more so in its rural areas as compared to urban areas. Citing examples of countries in Africa, a report by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) shows evidence that many countries with large youth populations, have high rural poverty rates. The problem of poverty, and other developmental needs of rural dwellers across Africa, can be addressed by tourism, among other initiatives for economic progress.

Tourism has played an important role in the diversification of countries economy. When its benefits expand to rural areas, tourism contributes to the sustainability of the rural communities and economy thus giving a base for achieving sustainable development in rural areas. ‘All around the world tourism empowers communities providing jobs and opportunities, most notably for women and youth. Tourism also enables rural communities to hold onto their unique cultural heritage and traditions, and the sector is vital for safeguarding habitat and endangered species,’ these are the words of UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili for World Tourism Day 2020, an annual occasion every 27th of September. This year’s celebration is on the theme of tourism and rural development which comes at a critical time when the world is coping with a devastating crisis that has greatly impacted the industry. It is on this note that the STTA Young Change Makers bi-monthly twitter chat discussed and highlighted some of the key issues revolving around rural tourism in Africa.

Potential benefits of tourism to rural communities in Africa

The discussion started off by looking at the potential benefits of tourism to rural communities in Africa. Tourism can bring about economic, social and environmental benefits in rural communities thus having a great potential in rural development problem in Africa. In fact, rural tourism was among the UNWTO priority focus for Africa in 2019 . Through effective engagement that empowers rural communities to utilize tourism resources, tourism has the potential of wealth creation and prosperity in rural areas. There are also prospects for entrepreneurship in rural areas that result from the various cultures and the need to preserve the existing natural resources. Sustainable enterprises rural areas create jobs for the youth, women and marginalized groups. Tourism has also enabled for the revitalization of culture allowing for enriched social and cultural experiences. This has strengthened and unified communities in destinations and enhanced the image of rural communities. Rural Africa is big in terms of agriculture. Tourism helps in the growth of other forms of tourism like the Agritourism, consequently bringing in more opportunities for entrepreneurship in rural areas. When visitors purchase some of the products and souvenirs, local communities get access to economic benefits of tourism and publicity.

Opportunities for tourism in Africa to support rural development

On an almost similar note, the discussion looked at the opportunities that are there for tourism in Africa that can support rural development. There is an increasing demand for authenticity by travelers and a growing consciousness of tourism that can benefit host communities while also supporting the promotion and preservation of natural and cultural heritage. These reflect a unique character of rural areas and their heritage. Readily available resources in rural areas connect the local communities with enterprise activities which support the development of niche products like gastro tourism, agritourism, and voluntourism. Rural areas in many countries in Africa are abundant in natural resources for which can be used to develop niche tourism products. Technological advancements provide immense opportunities for tourism to support rural development. The use of platforms such as home stays that have greatly contributed to rural development by adopting technological systems such as Airbnb, is one such example.

Challenges in Africa for tourism to effectively support rural development

Well despite the numerous opportunities from tourism outside the big cities in Africa, rural areas in the continent still lag behind urban areas in terms of development realized from tourism activities. The online young change-makers chat discussed some of the challenges in Africa for tourism to effectively support rural development. One is the lack of clear product development strategies that leads to over-concentration of development in leading destinations and over consumption of profile products in developed circuits leaving emerging areas in a continuous state of catch-up. This uneven distribution of development in destinations has resulted in limited access to capital in rural areas that can help scale up investment opportunities in tourism. Another challenge that was cited was that of leakage of tourism revenue that should have been retained within destinations in Africa for rural development.

The lack of marketing skills to market tourism products in rural destinations was also mentioned as being one of the challenges. This may be as a result of lack of knowledge, changing markets or competition from similar products. Tourism seasonality that affects development pace in rural areas hinders greatly the development of rural destinations. Poor infrastructure in some rural areas can hinder accessibility to some destinations. Many rural areas in Africa have poor infrastructure due to discriminatory development and insecurity in some areas. Rural-urban migration that lead to brain drain in the remote areas leaving the areas with little or no personnel with specialized skills and knowledge. In addition, lack of rural community involvement in development programs makes it difficult for communities to meet developmental goals in Tourism industry. Overall, poor government policies regarding linear growth of tourism in rural areas affects tourism’s goals for rural development.

How countries/governments in Africa can boost tourism’s contribution to rural development

Governments providing incentives for rural tourism organizations is one way governments in Africa can start. It is also important for countries to review policies that deny access of resources to host communities and give licensed rights to external investors. Governements can also encourage cooperative movements in rural tourism in Africa to build scale, diversity and resilience. A case in point is that of community wildlife conservancies in East and Southern Africa. For worthwhile development of the sector in the rural area it is important to have an engaged local community in the formulation and development of policies in the sector.

Having a bottom-up to community participation in tourism where the locals are involved in every decision-making process that impact tourism in the destination area. This will result into a strong partnership between communities, private and public sector that would in turn ensure rural tourism growth. Also of importance is the need for governments to invest in research and development involving tourism and rural destinations development. Improving accessibility to attractions in rural destinations and marketing of less known destinations is one of the areas the governments could start within the development of rural tourism.

As we celebrate the world tourism day 2020, the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has pointed out that, ‘For rural communities, indigenous people and many other historically marginalized populations’ tourism has been a vehicle for integration, empowerment and generating income.’

The summary herein is a compilation of some of the thoughts shared on #sttachangemakers bi-weekly chats. The discussion on rural development and tourism is so expansive and would love to hear your thoughts on the comment section or share your quote for World Tourism Day with a photo on STTA page on

Contribution by Guest Writers: Kepha Olwal and James Maina

Message from #sttachangemakers