It's expected that around 50 million people will spend their vacation in Africa this year (2011). That's a mere 4% of all international travel, but the low figures do not reflect what a huge role tourism plays in many African economies. One out of every 20 jobs in Africa is in the tourist and travel industry. (For more stats see the World Bank's and African Development Bank's Africa Competitiveness Report 2011).
The tourist industry is currently growing at a respectable rate of 7.2% in Africa. This number has the potential to be much higher, but developing tourism requires a whole host of factors besides building a lovely lodge or having a wealth of beauty and wildlife on your doorstep. A successful tourism sector relies on good safety and security, health and hygiene, infrastructure, education and training. The idea is that developing tourism can also help achieve some of these important development goals. It's a win-win situation.
Supporting and investing in tourism benefits many, not just those earning a living wage from working in the sector. With good planning, a small country like Rwanda has managed to turn its 200 mountain gorillas into a $200 million a year industry. Gorilla tourism has helped improve roads, schools and infrastructure in the Virunga region where the Gorillas live, as well as successfully conserving the gorilla habitat. Gorilla tourism has also done wonders to re-energize Uganda's tourist sector and kick started a small but important tourism sector in the DRC.
You can help just by traveling to Africa
One of the most important ways you can benefit Africa's economy is by choosing to travel on business and/or vacation there. And while you're in Africa, be a responsible traveler and make sure to stay local, eat local and shop local. Getting your tourist dollars to trickle down is important. And if the local community benefits from tourism, then tourism has a much better chance of being sustainable and successful.