China and India have had their turn to emerge – Africa is clearly next in line. However, the big question as all eyes focus on the continent is if tourism in Africa can deliver up to its true potential without developing and investing in its most important resource – talent. I suspect the answer is a resounding No!

african education Pictures: National College of Tourism Dar Tanzania Veta college, Arusha (copyright Bridge.Over Group)

“Africa has all the ingredients to provide an unparalleled experience for a wide range of tourists. However, a failure in presentation and lack of trained work force means the true tourism potential is far from being realised.”

Africa is a rare continent that is blessed with a superior wildlife product, authenticity, outstanding scenery, a wealth of cultural attractions and extremely friendly and warm people. It is also an indisputable fact that Tourism is a powerful means for economic growth and job creation in emerging markets. Despite all the ingredients to provide a rewarding and unparalleled experience for a wide range of tourists, at present, the tourism potential in Africa is far from realised. Strong tourism attractions by themselves cannot guarantee a successful tourism industry or high foreign receipts. Many other factors must be in place – the most important of which is the strategic issue of talent and skills.

Tourism the growth engine

According to a UNWTO report published in 2014, Africa’s international tourist arrivals and receipts have sharply increased in the last decade with arrivals doubling and receipts tripling between 2000 and 2012 with average annual growth of 6% and 10% respectively. This is especially good news in light of the lingering economic and geopolitical challenges. World Tourism Organisation further projects Africa’s international tourist arrivals to increase from 53 million in 2012 to 85 million in 2030 and 134 million in 2050.

charts africa tourism Source: World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO)

The folly of making tourism a strategic priority without a strategy

Whilst Governments across many African countries notably Kenya, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Tanzania have made tourism as a strategic priority and are even reaping rewards from it there is an even bigger number that hasn’t. Critically, tourism development will not just simply happen by prioritising a sector. It has to be stimulated, directed and the activities of the various players coordinated. This means having the appropriate institutional framework, legislation and organisational structures in place; having an attractive climate for investment; having a destination campaign to create strong market awareness; having knowledge and understanding of the market place and most importantly having a skilled labour force capable of meeting international service standards.

Lack of skilled work force and talent pipeline

Currently, most countries in Africa are paralysed by insufficient trained personnel in its tourism sector and this is acute at supervisory and management levels. A substantial increase in the competitiveness of the tourism sector cannot come from decrease in price of tourism offerings but instead has to be driven by an improved overall product experience. This approach requires a major investment in training of both existing staff and new entrants; including training the trainers as well as putting in place the necessary educational facilities to meet all the tourism training needs of the industry.

Learning from success stories

Our extensive experience on the ground in over nine African countries have found that hotel and other tourism industry personnel’s were invariably friendly and helpful but lacked many of the essential skills needed to do their job to the standard required. All aspects of service were noteworthy of criticism – knowledge, ability to communicate, language skills and attitude. The point is – lack of service standards can lend a disservice to even earnest efforts made to boost tourism. Hence, there is a major requirement for training if the quality of the staff in the tourism sector is to be brought to an acceptable level. Unfortunately, existing training establishments or trainers do not have that capacity and countries like South Africa and Kenya are more the exception here and not the rule. But everyone else can learn from what they have done right.

Feedback from the Industry

Our interactions with management in the hospitality industry has continually highlighted the fact that the quality of talent pool is often so abysmally poor that hotels have to structure a programme for unlearning the skills and teaching the craft from ground zero. Although the government has institutionalised accreditation agencies there are grave inefficiencies existing in the system with regards to how it is implemented which means inconsistencies in the quality of output. Further there continues to be trenchant criticism of private training schools which offer skills training in a classroom environment with no practical training or suitable equipment. Clearly, training on this scale, particularly at craft level, cannot take place through the vocational school system alone and it definitely should not be left as a sole responsibility of companies already burdened with providing substantial degree of on-the-job training.

So what’s the way forward?

The conclusion is clear. Africa needs a radically different approach to higher as well as vocational education and skill development if it is going to realise its potential as a global leader in the tourism sector in the coming decades. With a problem of this scale, the government, entrepreneurs, institutions, major businesses and students themselves must do much more. And, in the absence of impetus to solve critical issues, self-organization has to make up for the lack of services that should be provided by the government. That means entrepreneurial ventures spearheaded by locals might be the best way to create change.

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