Kojo Bentum-Williams is the Publisher-VoyagesAfriq Travel Media and United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) Senior Expert for Communications in Africa. Here, he reflects with Samuel Getachew of The Reporter on the latest challenge of tourism in the midst of the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19), on promoting tourism, on Ethiopia and the potential he sees in it. Excerpts:
The Reporter: You are an expert on African tourism and have traveled at length on the continent. Share with me the highlights of your career?
Kojo Bentum-Williams: Thank you for the opportunity to share my travels and journey into tourism. Tourism has been part of me for a long time since college days right through to the university where I developed interest in writing about tourism sector and aimed at specializing as a travel writer.
I have hence written and covered a number of events in the travel, tourism and aviation sector. I also gained some of the knowledge and experience from working with the Ghana Tourism Authority, and later on became the Press Secretary to Ghana’s Minister or Tourism and leading communications of Ghana’s tourism on the international scene.
I bowed out and established VoyagesAfriq Travel Media, (a specialized travel media outfit) based in Ghana with operating offices in Cote D’Ivoire, UK and France. And thereafter joined the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) as the Senior Expert of Communications in Africa. At this new role, I lead communications of the organization in Africa.
You must be observing the coronavirus pandemic that has devastated tourism in the world and Africa is no exception. Nations such as Seychelles almost entirely depend on tourism for instance. How can such nations ever recover from his epidemic?
It’s a force majeure; natural disasters among other public health outbreaks such as this have plagued the world and tourism has not been spared either. If you look at the current coronavirus where it has pushed the world into economic depression, the tourism sector is one of the worst hit. The World Tourism Organization had to revise its 2020 prospects for international tourist arrivals to a negative growth of one percent to three percent, translating into an estimated loss of USD 30-50 billion in international tourism receipts. These latest figures confirm the impact on the sector.
Having said that, it is imperative to note that its resilience is as good as its fragility. The bounce rate has proven to be remarkable and am sure countries that depend on tourism will devise mechanism to reduce the impact going forward in the future in their recovery plans. It’s about strategies and countries such as Seychelles mindful of the effects of tourism have been careful in what to do. The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) has also implored governments and international organizations to make tourism a priority in their recovery plans and actions.
Tourism’s power is captured well in the words of the Secretary General of the UNWTO Zurab Pololikashvili in saying ”By #stayinghome today, we can #traveltomorrowand travelling tomorrow will support jobs, celebrate culture and promote international friendship and understanding”. Looking at the devastation COVID-19 and which it has caused the tourism sector what from your perspective would be its lasting legacy?
This is not an entirely a novel situation, I mean as a public health outbreak. It gives the world the opportunity to rethink on how we do and practice tourism. Tourism will definitely be affected but just as UNWTO, WTTC and other experts have advocated for, governments need to include tourism in their recovery plans. It will also be recalled that, in adversity such as this, crises communication is vital and I can comfortably say that, it is one area that we can be proud of a sector. And it can remind us of what we need to do going forward
What such example, perhaps examples of nations can you cite that have overcome such challenges?
The Spanish Flu, SARS, Measles, Ebola, the H1 swine flu among a list of other pandemics have come and gone. The coronavirus crisis will not be the last serious epidemic the world faces though the current numbers are ravaging, the world, I am confident, it will come out of this public health outbreak strong if the international community will work together. Lessons will definitely be learnt and will help us rethink how we do the business of tourism going forward.
You have been in Ethiopia and met with different actors in the tourism sector. What is your assessment of Ethiopia’s tourism and how can it promote itself as an international tourism destination?
Ethiopia’s rich cultural heritage offers a lot of avenues to attract leisure tourist numbers to the country. The UNESCO inscribed Lalibela is just one of the rich tourism products that can be enriched with the other ancillary products to position as a must visit place. Talk about the gastronomy; injera, the wine among others.
If you look at the history of this great country, it’s not for any reason that it called itself “Land of Origins”; however, there needs to be more and aggressive marketing and strategies to develop the products. Tourism Ethiopia needs to pursue the development and marketing of its tourism resources while also building capacity for the sector. Consistency in the market is key in growing your tourism numbers. The good news for Ethiopia is that, they already have Ethiopian Airlines, which continues to play a key role in shaping the tourism sector with its enviable air access. The country as the host of the continent’s body, the African Union I believe offers the opportunity to grow its meetings sector.
Another challenge I see is the little or non-existence of the domestic tourism drive/campaign in Ethiopia. Domestic tourism can be best described as the backbone of a country’s tourism if you are to move away from external shocks in the market.
One area I was happy to have engaged officials of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Ethiopian Airlines and Tourism Ethiopia on the Stop Over project which will seek to convert some of the 22 million passengers transiting through Bole to experience Ethiopia. I am sure if it’s well implemented with all actors on board, it will go a long way to grow international tourism numbers to the country.
You have led a number of tourism conferences in many major cities in the world. Ethiopia is seldom represented. How important are tourism conferences not just for Ethiopia, but Ethiopian Airlines, which is a dominant airline that connects the continent at every corner?
Travel shows and exhibitions play an integral part in a country’s ability to market itself and attract business to the destination. Aside participating in these trade shows, it makes one have a real feel of the country and offers opportunity to international buyers sample the offering on demand. It also offers the opportune platform to exchange ideas and learn of the new trends in the industry.
Having said that, you need a working strategy to determine which events you attend and the value it brings to the destination, the travel trade and partners with your tourism ecosystem. Tourism Ethiopia can do better especially with its high air access courtesy of Ethiopian Airlines. I recently met Ethiopian Airlines at FITUR and was impressed on their outing not only about the promotion of the airline but the destination. On the contrast I didn’t see Tourism Ethiopia there at a start of the tourism season at the world’s biggest travel show.
Going forward, the key tourism players plus the meetings should meet and ponder a way forward for the burgeoning industry in the Horn of Africa.