Spotlighting Sustainability: Urban Tourism in Sub-Saharan Africa

In the 10th edition of Talking Urban Futures in Africa, Judd Devermont and Marielle Harris sit down with Regis Musavengane, Pius Siakwah, and Llewellyn Leonard to discuss why urban tourism is unique from general tourism in sub-Saharan Africa and why African governments should develop policies that reflect this distinct subset. Judd, Marielle, Regis, Pius, and Llewellyn discuss examples of urban tourism in the region; how sustainable urban tourism takes into account the impact on economy, environment, and community; and how governments can foster genuine inclusion—not just tokenistic participatory approaches. Finally, they explore how U.S. policymakers can engage urban tourism issues in sub-Saharan Africa, including through skills sharing, governance support, and real commitment on climate change goals. Regis, Pius, and Llewellyn are authors of the recent book, Sustainable Urban Tourism in Sub-Saharan Africa (Routledge, 2021).

  • Regis Musavengane is a political ecologist, tourism and conservation geographer, and a faculty member at the Midlands State University, Zimbabwe, Department of Tourism, Hospitality and Leisure Sciences. He is a research associate at the Department of Environmental Science, School of Ecological and Human Sustainability, University of South Africa (UNISA).

  • Pius Siakwah is a development and resource geographer, with interest in natural resource governance, energy, and tourism, and a research fellow at the Institute of African Studies (IAS), University of Ghana.

  • Llewellyn Leonard is an environmental sociologist and professor at the Department of Environmental Science, School of Ecological and Human Sustainability, UNISA.

The discussion, moderated by Judd Devermont and Marielle Harris, has been edited for purposes of brevity and clarity.

JD: Regis, can you give us a working definition of urban tourism? How would you distinguish urban tourism from other types of tourism in sub-Saharan Africa?

RM: Urban tourism is a type of tourism that takes place in urban settings. It is distinct from rural tourism, which takes place on the outskirts of cities or in unpopulated areas. Traditional tourism includes extraordinary events not necessarily part of people’s daily lives (e.g., visits to beaches or mountains), whereas urban tourism may include daily lived experiences such as conferences and concerts.

Urban tourism often takes place in cities’ central business districts. In Johannesburg, South Africa, tourist activities are centered in Gold Reef City or Sandton. All across the region, conferences, weddings, and even sporting events are organized in three- to five-star hotels. It's very rare to find these hotels in rural areas, so everyone will drive or fly into the city to partake in these types of activities.

Township tourism is another form of urban tourism. It is particularly popular in South Africa and Kenya. Tourists will visit the densely populated communities such as Soweto in Johannesburg, Khayelitsha in Cape Town, or Kibera in Nairobi. Tourists will utilize local food outlets and tourist facilities located in the townships or slums. African townships and slums contain rich historical information that may be of interest to both domestic and international tourists.

In other countries in the region, some tourists visit the densely populated markets and slums to see the living conditions of the ordinary populace, not the plush areas of the city that are similar to other parts of the developed world. Although this tourism may sometimes be exploitative—and tourists may look down on these populations—it draws more attention to the lived conditions of the poor and may ultimately translate into policies to tackle poverty.

Urban residents with formal businesses benefit from urban tourism. Those residents in the informal sector can also benefit through selling souvenirs or other small items to tourists who travel to urban areas.

MH: What is the difference between sustainable and unsustainable urban tourism?

PS: Sustainable urban tourism considers the economy, the environment, and the community. It is inclusive, leveraging sociocultural systems to promote visits from tourists. An example of sustainable tourism is the Chale Wote Street Art Festival in Accra, Ghana, where local and international artists and citizens help to paint murals on Accra’s streets. Unsustainable urban tourism, on the other hand, compromises the social and cultural values of communities, as well as the environment, for material gains and gentrification.

RM: In addition, Cape Town, South Africa, developed responsible tourism guidelines in 2002. Most establishments in the city, such as hotels and event tourist adventures, are “green certified” or “responsible tourism certified.” This means they are buying green equipment and taking into account the realities of poor people living in the vicinity. When touring the Western Cape’s wine route area, for example, tourists are encouraged to donate to the poor and toward wildlife. Cape Town is actually a blueprint for responsible tourism practices here in Africa. Sustainable urban tourism has the potential to mitigate urban poverty and urbanization-related risks.

MH: That is super interesting. Can you tell us more about how African governments can best navigate urban tourism and address environmental, social, and political risks?

LL: Unplanned urban growth is a major problem within Africa and contributes to much of the urban risk. Poor governance structures and a lack of capacity also contribute to this risk. There is a need for governments to properly understand urban risks in the context of tourism.

There is a lack of policy regarding sustainable tourism. South Africa has been the powerhouse in this area, but it is the exception. Most African countries lack urban sustainability policies and end up prioritizing macroeconomic top-down development initiatives that benefit the elite and exclude marginalized populations from urban spaces. There needs to be a strong approach by governments and the private sector to actually include the vulnerable groups in development design and decisionmaking processes. So it's actually about moving away from poor governance to enabling good governance.

There needs to be genuine inclusion of vulnerable groups to inform decisions. We do not need a tokenistic participatory approach as we've sometimes seen. It's about emphasizing accountability, transparency, fairness, and the rule of law. The final point in governance I think is for government to enable reflexive governance—more reflection on its own practices and processes. And there are structures and power relations that will have an impact in terms of how we move toward sustainable urban tourism and the need to address corruption and nepotism.

JD: How should U.S. policymakers pay attention to urban tourism? How should they prioritize it as something distinct from tourism in general?

RM: When African governments are making decisions and budget allocations, there is no way they can exclude the issue of tourism. Look at the impact of Covid-19 on the tourism sector. So many economies are suffering because of reduced travel due to lockdowns. Politics cannot be ignored in African tourism, and the U.S. government should pay attention to these trends when thinking about its foreign policy and aid relationships.

PS: There must be a difference between U.S. policy toward tourism in general and urban tourism in particular. Urban tourism should address the lived experiences and the daily struggles of the urban poor. Policies should integrate the urban poor into the urban space instead of excluding them through urban redevelopment and gentrification practices. For example, if the United States wants to meet the needs of a specific population—urban citizens—through development interventions, it must take into account the unique opportunities and challenges related to urban tourism. Most of these urban poor live in spaces that lack social services like roads, and an increasing upper and middle class also need some of those services. Policies and interventions should not facilitate the dispossession of the poor’s already fragile homes and economic activities.

For example, the U.S. government provided funding to Ghana through the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC). Part of the funding was used to construct roads in urban spaces with the aim of improving the movement of people. One of the highways—the N1—divided the urban area without the necessary road safety architecture, which would have included a bridge connecting each side. People who must cross this road to meet their daily needs have been killed in road accidents as cars speed in the area. In the future, the United States should insist that local communities are responsible for helping design urban interventions.

LL: I think we need to understand that we're living in a global society and a global economy. The United States, in a way, will need to take responsibility. If I take the issue of climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, the United States is one of the biggest emitters. And vulnerable populations in Africa are some of the hardest hit by climate change, particularly for coastal and urban environments on the continent.

There is a need for the United States to recognize the world as a global nation and that pollution knows no boundaries. U.S. choices impact the entire world. The United States needs to take responsibility to actually assist in making African cities more resilient to climate change, which may include assisting in terms of governance and setting up certain governing structures.

And, as I mentioned before, we lack the capacity, skills, and expertise. If you go to an African government department and say, "Who's your climate change expert who works on tourism?” you wouldn't be able to get a positive response, because the skills are not there. Skills sharing can happen through the African Union, and the United States can also play a role.

Judd Devermont is the former director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Marielle Harris is the research associate with the CSIS Africa Program.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2021 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Marielle Harris

Associate Director, Africa Program