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The Diaspora “Invasion”

BY: Kofi Akpabli
A careful observation of records will tell you that the tourism movement is skewed far away from diaspora Africans coming to the continent and vice versa.

The recent holiday season last December was auspicious for tourism in Ghana particularly from the African Diaspora community. Dubbed “December in Ghana,” it was part of the ‘Beyond the Return’ campaign which seeks to build on the success of the 2019 “Year of Return” initiative. This piece discusses the place of diaspora or roots tourism, especially for the African continent.

It is important to note more white-skins visit our destinations than our fellow Blacks from the Diaspora. A careful observation of records will tell you that the tourism movement is skewed far away from diaspora Africans coming to the continent and vice versa. Arrival to the Africa destination is European-heavy.  As for intra-Africa tourism the less we talk about it, the better. The hint of good news is that African countries such as Rwanda have introduced visa free access for Ghanaians. It is believed that gradually more of such policies from us and other African countries would open up intra tourism.

Though the bulk of African countries have recognised tourism as a game changer to their economy there’s still much left to be desired to make it a substantive industry. To date, marketing approaches largely ignore a growing and lucrative segment: young black travellers from around the world.

In the last few years, the so-called “black travel moment” has seen thousands of African Americans in particular go in search of experiences around the world. As the numbers of increasingly affluent African Americans have grown, more of them have been interested in connecting with contemporary urban Africa, not just safaris. Niche African American travel companies have existed for decades, but a new generation of Instagram-savvy startups is offering experiences curated to black culture, disrupting the tourism industry.

Unfortunately, African tourism authorities aren’t tapping optimally into this growth. A check of the numbers would show that it is a ready market worthy of investment. Where statistics are available, white baby boomers are the most frequent travellers to Africa, while China is quickly gaining. Yet, where African governments are creating new partnerships in China and India, specifically aimed at making travel easier, few are launching similar programmes with black travellers in mind. The South African Tourism Board, for example, markets extensively to black Americans. To some extent, Senegal substantially targets that market as well.

Part of the problem is marketing, and who has the budget to spend. More established tour operators have the money to buy an exhibition stall at global travel shows such as the New York Times Travel Show and these are the operators who have historically marketed to white Europeans and Americans.

But the reality is that there’s something exciting happening with young African Americans showing a renewed interest in Africa, not seen since perhaps the 60s. Through sounds such as Afrobeats and the growing popularity of African textiles in modern fashion, there is a new, more intimate curiosity to discover an Africa beyond the traditional imagery of lions and game reserves.

Emerging tour operators could cater to this new travelling demographic but they would need support from state-run tourism agencies.

Leadership from these organisations in opening the market and providing strong leads would open up a huge window of opportunity for the segment. With no oversight or assistance, there are small operators who have spotted the potential of this trans-Atlantic curiosity and are exploiting it. Small, often informally organised groups are filling the gap with so-called heritage trips, which promise to reunite African Americans with their long lost ancestral villages, but leave a sense of disappointment or downright dishonesty.

Meanwhile, more and more Black Americans want to travel to the continent beyond sites such as Senegal’s Goree island and Ghana’s Cape Coast and Elmina Castles but are put off by negative stereotypes or a lack of information. Disincentives range from cost, harassment and the perception that some Africans do not like Black Americans.

Diaspora tourism comes in many forms, including family visits, heritage or “roots” tourism to medical tourism, business travel, and “birthright” tours. However, regardless of the purpose of their travels, diaspora members are generally more likely to infuse money into the local economy when travelling to their country of heritage than most international tourists.

Recent emigrants are familiar with the culture and may not need international agents to charge them higher rates in order to feel comfortable and at home. As a result, diaspora tourists are less likely to limit themselves to foreign-owned tourist enclaves that import their supplies and export their profits. Usually, diaspora tourists are more willing to stay in locally owned or smaller accommodations (including with friends and relatives), eat in local restaurants, and buy locally produced goods than other international travellers.

Diasporas can help open markets for new tourist destinations in their countries of heritage. Pioneering tourists themselves might choose to invest in businesses in the region after making connections on their visits. They will likely influence others to visit through word of mouth and may become involved with local community projects.