By Mu Dong, Elias Shilangwa
LIVINGSTONE, Zambia, Aug. 28 (Xinhua) -- The co-hosting of the 20th United Nations World Tourism (UNWTO) general assembly by Zambia and Zimbabwe has been described by many as a milestone in promoting tourism development in Africa.
The general assembly is the main statutory meeting of the UNWTO and the most important gathering of senior tourism officials and high-level representatives from around the world.
The rising continent, where many countries boast an annual economic growth of at least 5 percent, is placing high hopes on the session underway in the Zambian tourist capital of Livingstone and the Zimbabwean town of Victoria Falls.
During the Aug. 24-29 event, which attracts more than 4, 000 delegates, the two countries commended the UNWTO for giving them an opportunity to host the event, stressing the meeting is held when tourism has become a pillar of economic development in Africa.
Sylvia Masebo, Zambian minister of tourism and arts, believes that the hosting of the event will have a lasting impact on the tourism industry as the two nations now have an opportunity to showcase various tourism attractions to the entire world.
"I am therefore alive to the fact that my country is carrying the hopes and aspirations of an entire continent. Zambia's success is Africa's success," she said in her welcome message.
"We expect to leave an indelible mark on our memories, and that it be part of our generational legacy, marking a clear turning point in the tourism fortunes of our two countries, our regions and indeed our continent," she added.
While it is acknowledged that tourism is on the rise in many African nations, what should be borne in mind is that the sector is beset by challenges which need to be tackled for improvement.
Although international tourist arrivals in Africa have surged from 15 million in 1990 to 50 million recorded last year and tourism earnings from 6 billion U. S. dollars in 1990 to 34 billion dollars last year, its share of global tourism is only 5 percent and its revenues from the industry accounts for only 4 percent in the world. Challenges to the sustainable development of the tourism in Africa include poor infrastructure, unreliable air transport, taxes on tourism investment, low levels of tourism skills, safety and high crime rates, visa requirements and inadequate accommodation space.
During the official opening of the general assembly, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe expressed concern at the problem of connectivity in Africa, saying Africa will only be able to promote tourism by increasing intra-Africa travel. The Zimbabwean leader described visa requirements as a serious problem, calling for urgent measures to undress the unfriendly visa and border regimes existing on the continent to benefit more from global economic cake.
"The current situation where Africa only has a four percent share of global tourism revenue in spite of its massive natural and cultural tourism resources is a matter of great concern to us. There is no way Africa can increase its portion of the global tourism cake without first promoting intra-Africa travel," he said.
The problem of visa requirements was also high on the agenda during a roundtable meeting of ministers responsible for tourism in Africa held at Elephant Hills Hotel in Zimbabwe on the sidelines of the general assembly on Monday.
According to a communique issued after the meeting, the ministers acknowledged that crossing international borders is a fundamental experience, while expressing concerns that complicated visa procedures have continued to impede tourists from traveling.
The ministers agreed on the need to speedily remove visa requirements and introduce other measures such as eVisas or introduce visa on arrival measures.
According to a study by the World Bank aimed at helping Africa increase tourism, airfares in Africa were almost 50 percent higher than elsewhere and charter tours were 20-30 percent more expensive compared with other destinations.
The study shows that only 10 percent of the region's 390, 000 hotel rooms are estimated to meet international standards while road transport was found to be notoriously poor in much of Africa.
As UNWTO Secretary-General Taleb Rufai said, the future of Africa's development lies with the tourism industry, hence the need for countries to increase efforts to promote the sector.