- The Washington Times - Friday, December 30, 2005

LUANDA, Angola — Three years after the end of civil war, Angola is trying to lure foreign tourists to this country, where decades of fierce fighting littered the countryside with land mines, left much of it in ruins and decimated the exotic wildlife once abundant in lush national parks.

Angolan officials are encouraged by the success of other African destinations and undeterred by enormous problems left behind by war and a failed courtship with Marxism.

At least six new four- and five-star hotels are planned on land confiscated by the government and nestled between the Mediterranean-style colonnades, arches and faded pastels of the old colonial architecture and the miles of squalid slums that stretch to the horizon in this seaside capital.

Tourism is the world’s largest industry, and every year it pumps billions of dollars into some of the poorest countries in the world. It creates jobs; reduces poverty; and builds new roads, airports, hotels and hospitals.

“Of the 49 least developed countries, 46 of them now have tourism as the largest foreign exchange earner,” says Louis D’Amore, president and founder of the Vermont-based International Institute for Peace Through Tourism.

Last year, Kenya, with one of Africa’s most developed tourism industries, hosted about 600,000 tourists and pocketed $577 million, or about 12 percent of its gross domestic product. In the coming year, Kenya tourism ministry official Rebecca Nabutola says her country expects to attract 1 million to 1.6 million tourists.

“When tourism is thriving, we get better schools, better hospitals and better infrastructure. When tourism does well, so do our other industries,” Miss Nabutola says.

Some critics charge that in the rush to collect tourist dollars, indigenous cultures are changed forever or indigenous people are forced to move away from ancestral lands to make way for new hotels, restaurants, roads or airports.

Akaki Ayumu Jovino, Uganda’s minister of tourism and antiquities, deflects the criticisms with a soft laugh and a smile. Tourism, he says, means jobs, poverty reduction and a better life for all citizens.

“With proper planning, the people will not be exploited,” Mr. Jovino says. “In Uganda, 20 percent of all gate receipts go directly to local communities to spend on projects as they see fit.”

Last year, he says, Uganda hosted 512,000 tourists, up from almost zero in the 1970s and early ‘80s when the brutal rule of dictator Idi Amin frightened away all but the hardiest.

“It is becoming our number one foreign exchange earner,” he says. “Our studies also show that one tourist means eight jobs, not just in the tourism industry, but also in agriculture and all the support businesses.”

Africa is the world’s poorest continent and, despite billions of dollars in aid, falls further behind the rest of the world every year.

It is no wonder that Angola, like many other developing countries, sees labor-intensive tourism as a relatively quick fix to many of its problems. Angola ranks 160th out of 177 countries on the U.N. Human Development Index, which measures poverty and the overall quality of life. All the countries below Angola are in Africa, and some, such as Tanzania, have much more developed tourism industries.

More than 5 million of Angola’s 13 million people live in Luanda, a city that was designed and has services for about 250,000. Most are unemployed and live without sanitation, running water or electricity in dusty, treeless, fetid slums of shabby unpainted shacks.

The International Council of Tourism Partners has begun a Mission Africa initiative to triple tourism income on the continent by 2015. ICTP President Geoffrey Lipman concedes, however, that the initiative will be a success only if it ultimately reduces poverty.

“It will have to deliver to local communities; it will have to meet sustainability criteria; it will have to meet international anti-corruption and fair-trade tests,” he says.

He adds that “there is no better potential of an export service that all the African countries can produce than tourism. It’s the one commodity they all have, and in some ways, the lack of development to date means that it’s a relatively unspoiled product, of the type that thoughtful travelers are seeking.”

Angola, for example, has a long, undeveloped Atlantic coastline, lush tropical forests, starkly beautiful mountains, dramatic waterfalls and exotic birds and other wildlife, even if the numbers were depleted by war.

“If managed carefully, tourism can make a huge contribution to the regeneration of the African continent,” Bene Maleka, an official with the Southern African Development Bank, said at a tourism symposium in Luanda sponsored by the U.S.-based African Travel Association.

Marlene Melton, president of African Ventures, a New York-based company that helps African countries promote tourism in America, says travel to the continent is hurt by the perception of it as a poor and dangerous place always caught up in wars, coups and famine.

“If there is a war in Sierra Leone, people think they can’t go anywhere in Africa,” Miss Melton says. “When there was a war in Sarajevo, people were still going to France, Spain and elsewhere in Europe because those countries advertised.”

Uganda’s Mr. Jovino, whose country recently started a million-dollar ad campaign, a pittance compared to the tourism budgets of major European destinations, says Africa does suffer from both the perception and the reality of violence, corruption and repression. Good media campaigns would help, he says, but they are too expensive.

“The challenge for Africa is not to sit back and lament,” Mr. Jovino says. “We wanted to give a new visibility to tourism in Africa, and we are succeeding.”

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