I was the fly on the window at the New York Times Travel Show; walking from booth to booth listening to how African exhibitors pitched themselves. There were about 40 African booths, most of whom were tour operators or travel agencies. There were also tourism boards from Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Zimbabwe and Ghana. I listened as exhibitors answered some questions from the curious and diverse attendees.
One man came over at the Zimbabwe stand, he was black and had no interest whatsoever on Victoria Falls nor wildlife safaris. His question got me thinking: “Are there any places or activities in Zimbabwe that can reconnect me with motherland and give me strength and motivation as a black brother?” He was not alone, probably 50% of black visitors to the stand wanted to find out how to reconnect with the continent. They were more interested in culture and experiences that had social intimacy with locals.
Another visitor went to the Uganda stand, she wanted to know five things that made Uganda unique. The first thing the attendant pointed to was the parks and gorillas. The lady then asked what made the Ugandan gorillas better than gorillas from Rwanda. The gentleman struggled to convince the lady that there was anything special in visiting Uganda. This was a lady who had visited Tanzania and South Africa in the past five years. She probably needed just a bit of incentive to make the decision but I doubt she will be making the journey.
The same lady went to the Rwanda booth and asked the same question. Even though Rwanda brands itself as “The Safest Country In Africa”, they too were animal-centric. Apart from mentioning Volcanoes National Park and a few known places like the Kigali Genocide Memorial there seemed to be nothing else for non-safari visitors.
These few examples are some of the inherent weakness that I saw at the show. The demographic profile of the visitors to the show was actually skewed towards middle-age and younger people. While in previous years, appealing to baby-boomers’ love for safari adventures seemed lucrative, this year there seemed to be a major shift.
There is a huge market of younger travelers , mostly millennials who showed great interest in visiting some of the African countries. They want to hop from place to place more as travelers than tourists. Those I interviewed, none wanted to spend 10 days cut off from the world in some huge park. They wanted to spend at most a day seeing animals, another seeing other attractions and landmarks. They wanted to experience the nightlife of cities. None of the African stands was prepared to woo this group yet they represented about 60% of the visitors to the show.
While exhibitors from Africa have their ideal customer; for safaris probably the older folks, I do think the tourism boards should also consider diversifying their entourage. I saw one daredevil lighten up when he asked about any places that could give him an adrenaline rush in Zimbabwe. He had already swum in the Devil’s Pool on Victoria Falls. He was told of the crocodile cage diving in the same city and the Mutarazi Falls skywalk plus zipline.
African countries must realize that they are competing with other places for customers and that they are also competing with each other. They need to differentiate themselves. While safari tours are lucrative, more and more people are turning into independent travelers who want to experience more than just nature.
There are many festivals that if marketed and targeted well can be huge draws to the countries. In South Africa there are many war re-enactment events that can be organized and become huge tourist draws. The same in Zimbabwe where cultural events like the Intwasa Festival Bulawayo can be marketed internationally and become huge draws.
There is more to see and do in Africa. There are spectacular cities. There are ancient ruins. There are wonderful museums, huge mountains, white-sand beaches, and captivating scenery. The world is ignorant about them but yearning for such.