Understanding tourism from economic perspective

It is well documented that tourism has become a buzz word in development seminars and conferences across the developing world as it has been recognised as a potential source of revenue for struggling economies like Lesotho.
The tourism sector has for long been earmarked as a key driver of growth going forward by the government, and through various public and private sector initiatives it has grown over the years though not at levels that have created substantial growth and employment.
The key for tourism scholars is to perhaps understand why some destinations attract more visitors than others.
This question has been asked by several researchers and has attracted numerous studies since the 1970’s.
Studies indicate that the responsiveness of demand for international travel varies, depending on the nationality of the tourist and the specific destination involved.
This is basically means that the demand for tourism is thus a function of the tourist’s country of origin, since cultural differences affect travel behavior.
The World Tourism Organisation’s ‘Tourism 2020 vision’ recognises that the tourism potential of African countries is significant but states that there currently exists severe obstacles that need to be addressed if this potential is to be realised.
The 2010 Fifa World Cup hosted by South Africa has helped market the continent further but analysts still believe the main cause of the lack of growth in Africa’s tourism is arguably its lack of price and quality competitiveness.
The worldwide tourism industry, its structures and operations consist of tour operators, travel agents and transport services that sell integrated tour packages to tourists.
Whether competitive tour packages can be put together for a particular destination will depend on relative prices, the safety of the destination and the quality and type of product offered.
Within such a package, the airfare can have a significant impact on the price — more so for shorter trips where the impact of hotel costs on the overall package are lower.
Unfortunately studies show that airfares on scheduled flights in Africa are amongst the highest in the world and Lesotho is no different in this regard.
Infrastructure and facilities in a country can also negatively affect both relative prices and quality of products.
According to The World Tourism Organisation the major obstacles to tourist arrivals in Africa in terms of infrastructure and facilities are insufficient air transport, a deficiency in facilities and accommodation, a lack of image and poor perceptions, poverty, disease and conflict.
Other studies point to weak marketing, fragmentation amongst tour operators and the lack of banking and communications facilities as factors constraining Africa’s tourism development.
On the other hand tourism seems to be sensitive to good economic growth and macro-economic stability.
This is why historically countries like Tunisia, Morocco (the recent political upheavals not withstanding), South Africa and Botswana have had the best inflows on the continent.
Unfortunately as a landlocked and generally cold region of the continent, Lesotho cannot generally offer “sun and beach” holidays so we may have to focus more intensely on our winter holiday capabilities which are unlike most countries in our region and the continent at large.
For the most part the tourism industry has leveraged on our country’s cultural heritage as a selling point, and while this strategy has worked it is important try and look to market the country in other ways so as to maximise Lesotho’s potential.
We also have South Africa as a neighbour and as the biggest economy on the continent that also happens to attract majority of the tourists who come to Africa.
Lesotho can learn a few things from our big brother neighbour and aggressively market our country to those tourists who get close enough.
Of the total number of tourists who come to Lesotho only about 1.9 percent is returning visitors as per a 2008 survey done by the bureau of statistics.
This rate of returning tourists is way too low and perhaps some soul searching needs to be done as to what the cause of this is.
Our political leaders often talk of tourism as the key driver for growth, but while that statement might be partly right, what they need to realise is that the tourism capabilities of a country are dependent on other factors that lie outside of the tourism industry itself.
Key factors like political stability, sound macro-economic fundamentals, infrastructure and communications depend more on their political will, and these in turn will stimulate the sector going forward.
The key is to understand that the tourism sector is inextricably intertwined to other variables within our socio-economic framework.
It is then the job of the politicians to facilitate that framework that will enable the sector to flourish, and in turn the sector will spur economic growth.
The truth of the matter is that countries do not merely attract multitudes of tourists by virtue of having breathtaking scenery.
The process is far more intricate and involves a multi-pronged approach.
As with most things it begins first with getting the politics right and then economics will follow suit.

Lechesa is a freelance writer based in Maseru

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