Africa Is Global Star Again: The Travel and Tourism Sector in Africa Is Thriving as Never before. Preliminary Statistics for 2006 Indicate That the Continent Has Yet Again Been the Star of the Global Industry, Outperforming All Other Regions. African Business Editor, Anver Versi Reports

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In 2006, Africa was once again the star of the global tourism industry, registering an 8.1% growth and outperforming all other regions. This is the second year in succession that Africa has come top of the pile. And 2007 is projected to be even better.

Africa's growth rate was a key contributor to the global industry's larger than expected 4.5% increase over 2005.

The reason why Africa's performance is causing such excitement within the world tourism industry is that the 2006 growth rate is not an isolated spike but forms part of a sustained period of growth. After the dramatic drop in international travel following 9/11 and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, international travel and tourism, against all odds, began a steady climb, registering a phenomenal 10% growth in 2003/02. Even during the 'bad' season in 2003, when there were declines in practically all regions, Africa posted an impressive 5.2% growth, followed in 2004/03 with a bracing increase of 9.1% before settling down to 8.5% in 2005/04 and the current 8.1%.

According to the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), "the current trend of a gradually slowing growth rate is expected to continue in 2007. The increase in international tourist arrivals is projected to be around half a percentage point lower than in 2006, that is around 4% much in line with the forecast long-term annual growth rate of 4.1% through 2020". The projection is therefore that growth will slow down for all regions in 2007--bar Africa. This is the only region that is expected to show a growth of 9%.

Africa's performance is all the more impressive when you consider that globally, the continent competes on equal terms with other regional markets which have much longer established and developed tourism products. Africa has to compete with many other attractive and relatively cheaper regional destinations and as a long haul destination for the majority of its visitors, its attractiveness has to outweigh the higher costs of air travel for tourists.

UNWTO estimates the total number of global arrivals in 2006 at 842m visitors, a new record. This is 36m more visitors over 2005. Of the additional 36m, the largest expansion, 17m was for Europe. Industry experts attribute part of the global growth and a good deal of European growth to increasing competition among low-cost airlines, which have driven down short-haul prices to historic lows. The influence of budget airlines has had such a remarkable impact on traditional patterns of travel and tourism that at least two of the world's biggest package tour companies, MyTravel and Thomas Cook, have decided to merge in an effort to make economies of scale and cut costs by a general downsizing.

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In this context and keeping in mind that the continent is a long-haul and relatively expensive destination, Africa's increase of 3m arrivals over the year is being regarded as outstanding.

This is excellent news not only for Africa but for the industry as a whole. Although tourism remains globally one of the most competitive sectors, the industry sees itself very much in competition with other sectors and also vulnerable to a host of outside influences. It is also conscious of the need to constantly renew itself, either by opening up newer and hitherto untrodden destinations or repackaging older destinations to appeal to changing fashions.

"In this context," the representative of one of the most extensive hotel chains in the world told me during the UNWTO Africa Tourism conference in Geneva last year, "Africa is the key. South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Mauritius, Seychelles, Botswana and a few other destinations are fairly well developed--I say fairly well developed, not fully developed--but the rest of the continent is virgin territory. The potential for development is infinite."

The continuing robust health of the global tourist industry has come as a huge relief to an increasing number of African countries that have invested considerable money and creative time to the sector. …