The potential of the tourism market in Africa is massive. A November 2023 research report by the World Travel & Tourism Council shows that the continent’s tourism revenue will grow 6.5 percent annually, adding USD 168 billion and 18 million new jobs to the economy over the next ten years. The report, echoing findings of a 2018 research report from US-based think tank Brookings, nonetheless concluded that Africa’s tourism industry is still in the early stages of development. Both reports suggest that despite the fast headline growth it predicted, much more untapped potential awaits exploitation.
The African initiatives to boost tourism
African political and business leaders have finally started to recognize this untapped potential. They are coming together and putting in motion various initiatives to make it more convenient and hassle-free for travelers seeking to visit and spend money. In 2019, the African Union adopted the African Tourism Strategic Framework, a set of policy directives for member states to implement through 2028. The framework asked member states to help triple Africa’s international tourist arrivals, which only comprise 5 percent of the global total. The framework especially noted that only 40 percent of African tourism constitutes intra-continent travel, compared to the global average of 80 percent.
Over 80 million Africans already work remotely in capacity, meaning plenty of locations across the continent can host digital nomads from elsewhere.
Particularly in response to the low intra-Africa travel rate, governments and private sectors in countries across Africa have been wooing African travelers in recent years. With marketing campaigns and favorable policies, they are trying to make tourism a major source of economic growth. So far, Rwanda, Benin, the Gambia, and Seychelles have abolished visa requirements for all other African countries. Other governments are slowly following suit on a more piecemeal basis. Non-governmental organizations such as the East Africa Tourism Platform and Africa Tourism Initiatives have also been founded. They seek to advise governments and businesses on contributing to and taking advantage of the increase in intra-African travel.
Such deliberate moves to promote tourism can increase economic output. Kenya is a dramatic case in point. President William Ruto announced in December 2023 that all countries can apply for electronic travel authorization for short-term tourism in Kenya. Kenya’s decision to scrap visas for tourists from all countries represents a publicized break with a global norm of governments categorizing countries as visa-required and visa-exempt in border control. The Kenya government projects that the number of foreign tourists visiting the country will double to 5 million per year due to the abolition of visas. The increased arrivals will bring additional tourism revenues amounting to KES 1.5 trillion (USD 9.35 billion). The Kenyan government has also launched a series of “roadshows” in West Africa to ensure more African tourists will come.
The missing digital nomad puzzle
As African political and business leaders deliberate on attracting more international arrivals, one potential solution has yet to be on their radar: the digital nomad visas. Digital nomads, as workers with fully remote work arrangements, can work anywhere in the world with reliable internet access. Due to the impact of COVID-19, more and more positions are not tied to the office. As of 2023, the digital nomad community counts approximately 35 million members worldwide, directly and indirectly contributing USD 787 billion to the global economy. With an economic mass equivalent to a large country, digital nomads are being wooed with tax-free residency visas by various countries seeking to boost their economies. In short, they, as a collective, represent a new, more long-term type of tourist who consumes more than short-term international arrivals.
Yet, looking at the list of 58 countries that currently offer digital nomad visas, only four are in Africa (Seychelles, Cabo Verde, Namibia, and Mauritius). The lack of digital nomad visas in Africa has persisted even though digital infrastructure and a digital workstyle on the continent are rapidly catching up with the rest of the world. Over 80 million Africans already work remotely in capacity, meaning plenty of locations across the continent can host digital nomads from elsewhere. That is not to mention that cities from Cape Town to Accra to Nairobi are building brand-new smart cities where the digital working style is at the forefront of their economic future.
Beyond the availability of a digital infrastructure and working style, African countries also boost several advantages that many existing digital nomad destinations do not have. Compared to Europe, parts of Africa provide greater affordability for similar lifestyles. Compared to Asia, parts of Africa provide more widespread use of major Western languages and shorter distances to major European and American markets. Compared to the Americas, African countries get fewer foreign travelers or immigrants, making it an ideal location to learn about new cultures and perspectives.
With African governments and businesses increasingly seeing tourism as a big source of future development for the continent’s future economy, they are taking initiatives to boost tourism. So, it is unfortunate that most of these same countries have yet to embrace digital nomad visas as the logical next step. The number of fully remote workers is surging worldwide and within Africa. Providing these workers with a temporary home through fixed-term residency could be even more economically beneficial than short-term tourists.
Xiaochen Su, Ph.D. is an educational and business risk consultant currently based in Malta as a digital nomad. He previously worked in Tanzania for a US-based non-profit.
Photo by Andrew Neel via Unsplash.