Africa needs to embrace the information age and tell more of its own extraordinary stories if it wants to improve the image of the continent and attract more tourists.This was one of the main conclusions at the first Africa regional conference on Tourism Communications - TOURCOM
- organized by the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) in Mali.
“We are not asking for help, we are asking for comprehension,” said conference chairman Hon. Franklin Nchita Ogbuewu, the Minister of Tourism of Nigeria. “We will now be speaking more, but let the world open its ears.”
The conference, held in conjunction with UNWTO’s Africa Regional Commission meeting, was attended by some 350 tourism officials and media representatives from 43 countries. It focused on communications and image building as a way of boosting tourism to Africa - a region that currently accounts for less than 5% of international tourist arrivals.
“While some, such as BBC World and CNN, are currently making an extra effort to tell the story of Africa, it is unlikely this momentum will continue unless Africans themselves become more pro-active in communicating their own news to the rest of the world,” asserted UNWTO Secretary-General Francesco Frangialli in his opening address. “I believe that public interest, and consequently media interest, in Africa will increase in tandem with increasing tourism. Those destinations that are capable of communicating effectively are the ones that will benefit the most.”
Africa as a whole suffers from an image problem due to media coverage of the serious security and health issues faced by some countries on the continent. Other countries find there is a lack of coverage of the human-interest stories and good news coming out of the region. Tourists tend to lump all the countries of Africa together so that bad news in one destination affects the entire region. Rather than blame the media for this situation, participants were urged to develop an effective working relationship with the media.
“We are not part of the problem,” said BBC World presenter Lyse Doucet in opening the conference. “If you simply dismiss the media as causing the problem, we will not be able to work together.”
Participants agreed that good communications needs to begin at home, with tourism officials developing better relationships with their own local journalists and training them in the complexities of the tourism sector. Training for tourism industry communicators was also recommended to increase standards of professionalism in African tourism.
For foreign tourism generating markets, there is a need for more information for the media and for potential tourists through the destination website.
“People nowadays expect more information, better quality information and faster information,” said UNWTO Deputy Secretary-General Taleb Rifai. “But it is important that the information be truthful, that there is a balance between what we promote and the reality on the ground or else we will lose credibility.”
TOURCOM Africa also looked at the issues of crisis communications and the threat of Avian Flu. With crisis becoming a way of life for the tourism industry, it is important that destinations be prepared, especially for the potential problems that an Avian Flu pandemic would cause. Members were urged to appoint Avian Flu coordinators for the tourism sector and join together with health officials to make sure that industry concerns are heard in the planning process.
African nations were encouraged not to let travel advisories issued by big tourist generating countries stifle hope and promotional efforts.
Kenya Tourism Director Wanjiru Makanga Munene said her country had successfully managed to get around travel advisories and boost arrivals by communicating directly and honestly with potential tourists.
UNWTO pledged to continue helping African nations improve their tourism communications through special programmes at the national level.
A similar conference for Latin America - TOURCOM Americas - is being organized by UNWTO in Rosario, Argentina on 28-30 May.