Africa: Tapping the Tourism Potential of West Africa’s Hidden Gem

2022 has been a significant year that has marked the robust revival of Africa’s tourism industry which was almost gobbled up in the throes of the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council latest Economic Impact Report (EIR), the African Travel and Tourism sector’s GDP is estimated to grow at an average rate of 6.8 percent annually between 2022 and 2032, creating 14 million new jobs. Furthermore, the sector’s contribution to GDP is expected to grow 20.5 percent to $144B by the end of 2022, amounting to 5.1 percent of the total economic GDP.

Moreover, employment in the sector is set to grow by 3.1 percent this year, to reach nearly 22 million jobs. The continent boasts of a thriving tourism industry, which has steered economic development, birthing robust tourist economies that enjoy an influx of visitors. However, as much as most countries have managed to harness these opportunities, others are lagging behind – pertinently, the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) in the continent.

According to the UN, LDCs are a list of developing countries which exhibit the lowest indicators of socio-economic development, with the lowest human development index ratings of all countries in the world. Africa is home to 33 countries classified under this category, with many striving to graduate to a higher ranking. Guinea Bissau, a small island nation with a coastline in the Atlantic Ocean, wedged between Senegal in the north and Guinea to the south east is one such country which simultaneously ranks among the poorest countries in the world. This West African country is one of the smallest and least visited in the continent. Bissau is the capital city but it was included in the country’s name, in order to distinguish it from other nations with the shared name ‘Guinea’ which include: Guinea and Equatorial Guinea in Africa and Papua New Guinea in Oceania.

Albeit the country having gained independence from the Portuguese in 1974, progress has been dogged down by political instability and unrest stunting the growth of many sectors among them tourism. Since independence, the country’s history has been riddled by a series of coup d’états, border conflicts, criminality, civil unrest and corruption. Four successful coups have been recorded, with another 16 coups attempted, plotted or alleged, according to data by the World Bank.

Currently, under the incumbent President Umaro Sissoco Embaló, the country has registered some semblance of political stability, with his government working to build the nation. Prior to his presidency, no elected leader has served a full term since independence until 2014 with the election of Jose Mario Vaz, who he succeeded in 2019.

Harnessing Guinea Bissau’s Untapped Tourism Sector

Despite being in the LDC category, Guinea Bissau is popularly known as the ‘hidden gem of West Africa’ and with good reason given that it is home to the largest group of islands in Africa, the idyllic ‘Bijagos Archipelago. Guinea Bissau is among the Small Island Developing States (SIDS), with a rich, diverse marine and terrestrial ecosystem whose waters are considered one of the wealthiest biodiversity areas of West Africa. The country has the potential to become the most in-demand emerging destinations in Africa today.

The Bijagos Islands cover 2,500 square km of ocean and are the jewel in Guinea Bissau’s crown, together with its pristine beaches. The archipelago is made up of 88 islands, and has been designated as a UN World Heritage Biosphere Reserve. The Bijagos Islands are home to abundant and untroubled flora and fauna, and a one-of-a-kind savannah of thick palm groves and sprawling mangrove forests. Its waters are home to manatees, giant turtles, sharks, dolphins and even rare saltwater hippos, together with 155 species of fish, attracting adventurous sport fishermen. Of the world’s eight species of tortoise, the World Heritage Center states that five are found in the Bijagos. Furthermore, the archipelago also boasts of a diverse birdlife, 96 species of both local and migratory birds. The country’s extraordinary beaches offer the best sports-fishing for visiting tourists.

The Bijagos UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in Guinea Bissau.Image Source-Windows 10 Spotlight Images

The country has immense indigenous cultural reserves. For history enthusiasts, colonial legacy still lingers, from the colonial remnants of the ‘ghost town’ of Bolama to the fist-shaped sculpture called the ‘Hand of Timba,’ a monument in the Port of Bissau, which commemorates a critical event in the history of the country’s struggle for independence where colonial police opened fire on a large crowd of dockworkers killing 50 and injuring hundreds. The clenched hand represents a swindler who does not intend to pay his debts just as the Portuguese colonizers did, by refusing to pay dockworkers fair wages. The 3rd of August is a national holiday in the country, which marks the anniversary of the Pidjiguiti Massacre.

How Can Tourism Development Impact Guinea Bissau?

Tourism is one of the key drivers of economic progress of most African countries and has proved instrumental in alleviating poverty levels in these nations. Guinea Bissau can follow the same trajectory, by leveraging on and tapping into the potential of its tourist attractions. Tourism development in Guinea Bissau is bound to have profound effects bolstering the economy of the nation, which ranks among the poorest in the world. Capitalizing on its natural endowments will greatly boost its GDP, which according to Trading Economics global macro econometric models, is expected to reach $1.50B by the end of 2022.

Although boosting tourism is not among the six pillars of the country’s economic plan and 2025 vision dubbed ‘Terra Ranka’ tourism is a viable solution to lifting thousands of its citizens out of abject poverty. Tourism has the power to increase generation of foreign exchange earnings and revenue generating opportunities, provide sustainable employment, foster entrepreneurship, and improve the quality of life for its citizens.

In Guinea Bissau, more than 63 percent of the population is under the age of 25 and according to the CIA World Fact book, the median age of the country’s population is 18 years. With such a youthful population which is largely unemployed, tourism could solve this challenge both in formal and informal sectors. By the same token, this will open up other key underdeveloped sectors of the economy and seal gaps in the country’s transport and infrastructure, electricity and internet connectivity, security, health, financial services, water and sanitation, education and the service industry.

Tourism, fisheries and maritime transport present immense opportunities to the country, and are identified as key to economic diversification and building resilience in the country. In light of this, the UNDP has been assisting the government to tap into the country’s vast blue economy potential. Guinea Bissau needs to assess its tourism development potential, and mobilize investments into the lucrative sector accordingly. Tourism’s main comparative advantage over other sectors is the nature of its ripple effect across the economy, such as in agricultural production to supply to hotels and restaurants and financial services, among many others.

With support from the UNDP, the Green Climate Fund recently approved $2M financing towards the establishment of a National Adaptation Planning Process in Guinea Bissau, which was approved in June 2022 and will be implemented over the course of three years. The project’s objective is to strengthen the country’s adaptive capacity by developing an enabling environment that integrates climate change adaptation into the national planning process with focus on the tourism and agriculture sectors. The tourism sector was selected as an area of ​​focus for the project because it has significant growth potential. Profits earned from tourism can be reinvested into the country to develop better infrastructure, education and funding conservation efforts; this will not only grow the industry but also create a positive sustainable cycle in the country. According to the World Bank, which has been assisting the country with biodiversity conservation and the promotion of sustainable development, eco-tourism has already taken root in the Bijagos, for the posterity of its natural treasures for future generations.