Cross-border connections: Many African governments are taking steps to promote regional integration and intra-continental tourism


Africa’s tourism sector is booming. With a growth rate of 5.6% in 2018, compared with the global average of 3.9%, the continent is home to the second-fasted expanding tourism industry in the world, after the Asia-Pacific region. Accounting for 8.5% of the continent’s GDP, tourism contributed a total of $194.2bn to African economies in 2018. Multiple governments have recognised the importance of tourism to their countries’ economic well-being. Many of them – particularly Kenya, Rwanda and South Africa – have adopted strategies to improve their meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions offering in a bid to attract business travellers.

Reflecting the rapid growth of Africa’s tourism sector, the number of foreign nationals visiting the continent has also risen dramatically in recent years. Around 67m travellers visited African countries in 2018, an increase of 7% from 2017, when 63m people visited the continent. With 10m and 11m arrivals per year, respectively, Morocco and South Africa account for the most foreign visitors.

Despite the sector’s impressive growth and increased visitor numbers, Africa still makes up a relatively small proportion of the international tourism market. For example, the continent accounted for 62.9m, or 5.1%, out of a total of 1.2bn global arrivals in 2016, according to the Africa Tourism Monitor complied by the African Development Bank (AfDB).

Integrating Africa

African governments are increasingly moving towards continental integration, with efforts to liberalise trade and facilitate the free movement of people. These efforts are expected to have positive impacts on intra-African tourism. One key development is the push for further regional integration via the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) and the African Union (AU) Protocol on Free Movement. Compared to other parts of the world, intra-regional commerce has historically comprised a relatively small proportion of Africa’s total trade. In 2017 intra-African exports accounted for 16.6% of total exports, compared with 68.1% and 59.4% in Europe and Asia, respectively.

Increasing intra-African trade is therefore a priority for the continent. In a bid to increase the flow of goods and people across the region by establishing a common market, most African governments have signed up to the AfCFTA. As of December 2019, 28 countries had ratified the agreement, and all African nations except for Eritrea had signed up to it. If fully implemented, the agreement could boost intra-regional trade by 132.7%, according to the Peterson Institute for International Economics. Facilitating the free movement of people across national borders is one of the AfCFTA’s primary objectives, as this will facilitate intra-regional trade and, by loosening travel restrictions, potentially increase the volume of intra-African passenger traffic. (Ambien)

While many barriers to the free movement of people – including restrictive visa requirements – remain in place across much of the continent, the push for greater regional integration is a positive development and, with the relaxation of existing travel restrictions, is likely to benefit intra-African tourism. Indicative of the importance many governments attach to increased intra-continental tourism, the AU hopes to double the number of African travellers visiting other countries in the continent by 2023, according to the AU’s Agenda 2063.

Primarily backed by countries such as the Seychelles, the AU plans to introduce an African passport for all the continent’s citizens in the coming years. The goal behind the African passport, which was initially announced in 2016 and is currently only available to heads of state, is to facilitate the free movement of people across the continent, in keeping with the broader goal of African integration.

Visa Openness

Aside from the African passport, many African countries have already taken steps to ease the burdensome visa regulations that hold back the potential of intra-African tourism. According to the 2019 Africa Visa Openness Report published by the AU and the AfDB, 47 African countries have either improved or maintained their visa openness scores. African citizens can travel to 27 of the continent’s countries visa-free or through visa-on-arrival initiatives. Additionally, in 2019, 21 African countries offered eVisa platforms, an increase from 16 the previous year and nine in 2016.

While many African nations have taken steps to liberalise regulations, visa openness remains uneven across the continent. The Seychelles and Benin, for example, do not impose visas on African visitors. Ethiopia, meanwhile, is trying to become a regional transport hub and has consequently made improving visa openness a priority. The country jumped 32 points in the 2019 Visa Openness Index and is now the 18th-most open African country.

However, despite the push for liberalising visa regulations, some African countries are in fact strengthening visa restrictions for visitors from elsewhere in the continent. In October 2018, for example, Tanzania changed its visa-on-arrival scheme for African nationals. The country now requires citizens of Djibouti, Ethiopia and Nigeria, among others, to apply for visas three months in advance.

If successfully implemented, the introduction of the African passport and the general push to liberalise visa and other travel restrictions would improve intra-African tourism. Progress in this area is, however, relatively slow due to bureaucratic deadlock and resistance from some African governments. According to the 2019 Africa Visa Openness Report, the percentage of African citizens who do not require visas to enter African countries remained static at 25% in 2018 and 2019, a modest improvement from 22% in 2017. Meanwhile, the percentage of African citizens eligible for visas on arrival increased from 24% in 2018 to 26% in 2019. It is therefore likely that visa openness will continue to make moderate gains in the short to medium term. However, while this push is generally positive, it will likely be several years before increased continent-wide visa openness has a significant, measurable impact on intra-African tourism.

Expanding Middle Class

Home to six of the 10 fastest-growing economies in the world according to the World Economic Forum, Africa has seen its middle class expand exponentially since 2000. According to a report published by data consulting firm Fraym in 2019, Africa is home to one of the fastest-growing middle classes, comprising around 330m people, compared to 313m in 2011. The study found that the Nigerian consumer class grew by almost 140% between 2009 and 2019. By 2060 the AfDB predicts that the middle class alone will comprise some 1.1bn people, or 42% of the projected population.

This growing cohort is an opportunity for African countries looking to increase intra-continental tourism, as this demographic makes up a significant proportion of the continent’s tourism traffic. According to a 2019 report by Jumia Travel, a firm specialising in African tourism, most African travellers – around 46% – visiting other countries in the continent are young professionals between the ages of 25 and 34.

Financial Constraints

Despite this impressive growth, it is unclear whether Africa’s middle class will be able to drive the continent’s tourism sector in the coming years. There are many high-income earners that form part of the African political-business elite and have substantial investments in sectors such as commodities. However, around 60% of Africa’s middle class – approximately 180m people – are in the “barely out of poverty” category, according to the AfDB. As such, their incomes are subject to extreme fluctuations, and individual members of the middle class may not have the required disposable income to spend on trips abroad, even to visit nearby countries. Tourism operators interested in the intra-African travel market will, therefore, need to take these financial constraints into account to price their products accordingly. Assuming that Africa’s middle class has the same purchasing power as the likes of China puts operators at risk of setting unrealistic targets and pricing the middle class out of the market. Thus, while Africa’s growing middle class will likely travel across the continent and thereby boost its tourism industry, many members of this cohort still face significant financial challenges.

Some high-income individuals may be able to make the most of luxury travel opportunities, however, and this proportion is likely to increase as African economies continue to grow in the long term. It is worth noting, though, that this trend could face disruptions as many economies remain vulnerable to fluctuating commodity prices.

Transport Infrastructure

For most African governments, improving transport infrastructure is a policy priority, as high-quality, intra-continental connections facilitate economic integration and improve cross-border networks. According to consultancy firm GlobalData, annual investment in Africa’s transport infrastructure is expected to increase by 46.4% to $69bn in 2020, up from $47.1bn in 2019. Targeted projects are scheduled to add more than 54,110 km of roads, 55,345 km of railroads and 599 km of bridges. With anticipated investment figures of $9.8bn, $8.5bn and $7.5bn, respectively, Nigeria, Kenya and Egypt are attracting some of the highest levels of investment in transport infrastructure.

There are a number of individual projects expected to encourage intra-African tourism. For example, the proposed trans-ECOWAS rail line, linking Togo to Côte d’Ivoire via the Ghanaian coast, is set to improve transport connections in West Africa. In October 2019 the Ghanaian Ministry of Railways Development signed an agreement with Coastal Railway Network, a private investor, to develop a 530-km line from Aflao to Elubo on a build, operate, transfer basis, as part of the ministry’s plans to develop a nationwide rail network.


Despite recent developments, significant challenges remain, which may hinder the growth of intra-African tourism. Aviation infrastructure is one area in particular need of improvement in order to support growing passenger traffic. As of January 2019 Africa was home to 731 airports and 419 airlines. According to the International Air Transport Association, the continent is set to become one of the fastest-growing aviation regions in the world.

However, the segment’s potential, and its ability to boost intra-African tourism, is held back by poor infrastructure. Many African airports are outdated and were not constructed to support high numbers of arrivals, and ticket prices remain relatively high. As a result, while recent investment in the transport sector is promising and will undoubtedly benefit the development of intra-continental tourism, some difficulties remain. Infrastructure development has largely focused on road and rail networks rather than expanding airports and flight connections.

New Opportunities

The general movement towards a more prosperous and integrated Africa has brought with it new opportunities for intra-continental tourism. Combined with the rapid growth of the middle class across much of the region, many countries are liberalising visa regulations and focusing on improving transport infrastructure in a bid to make continental travel easier for African nationals.

In anticipation of rising traveller volumes in the coming years, hotel companies across Africa are attempting to increase the number of rooms available. According to Jumia Travel, Egypt has been leading the way in this regard, with 15,158 hotel rooms in the pipeline as of 2019, followed by Nigeria (7940), Morocco (6395) and Ethiopia (6184).

Despite impressive growth in recent years, obstacles remain for African countries looking to increase their visitor numbers. These include slow bureaucracy, institutional resistance to liberalising visa regulations, financial constraints on the emerging middle class and, despite recent improvement, poor infrastructure. In particular, many airports remain unable to support rising passenger numbers. Nevertheless, despite these issues, the overall trend remains positive for intra-African tourism, with visitor numbers continuing to grow, and signs that governments are pushing for regional integration and greater investment in transport infrastructure.