The five East Africa Community partner states of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi have so much in common that unification of the region makes a lot of sense. With the prospects of continued tourism growth in East Africa, the region is now marketed as a single tourist target. Hospitality and tourism industry is a leading employer and fastest developing segment worldwide.
This is perfect timing for tourism stakeholders to take a microscopic examination of how best the community can benefit from this major sector profitably and sustainably. In the past, tourism often did more damage to the ecosystem than good. As the industry diversifies, the region must promote domestic tourism and adopt practical approaches of ecotourism. Fortunately, without exception, all member states are demonstrably committed to making both domestic and ecotourism the nucleus of future initiatives. Leaders and legislators in the industry are poised to protect Africa's threatened ecosystems, endangered species and the precious diversity of its wilderness and culture.
First, domestic tourism is an educational process for the environment since it plays a big role in influencing public viewpoints. Simply put, it is a programme where residents are persuaded to visit natural attractions within their country. By doing so, many begin to value what they see and become pro-active in protecting the same. Secondly, unlike international tourism, domestic tourism is non-seasonal. It supports the industry during the low season when foreign visitors stay away and, therefore, preserves employment. As the African standards of living increase, more people are likely to have some disposable income that will enable them to engage in domestic touring. Although tradition has always measured tourism in terms of the numbers of foreign visitors bringing in foreign currency, we must devise ways of developing local tourism as well especially during the current economic uncertainties that continue to suppress Africa's source markets in Europe and the Americas. The default thinking that a domestic tourist does not offer the same degree of benefit is no longer valid in today's increasingly new economic world order. Domestic tourism is the pillar of this industry in developed systems. In fact, domestic tourism is a precondition of eco-tourism.
The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) defines ecotourism as responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people. Ecotourists travel to inaccessible places, endure challenges without luxuries in order to experience the earth's wonders, be they natural, cultural or man-made. It is about bonding conservation, cultural awareness and community benefits where ecotourists interact with the villagers and their customs while seeing the wildlife in the context of education, protection and financially supporting them.
It follows that once the local residents develop a passion for the attractions in their countries through domestic tourism, it lays a fertile ground for the government to formulate and implement policies that promote ecotourism. One precedes the other. The two go hand in hand. Ecotourism is complicated and cannot simply focus on wildlife and the environment without involving local people. Success of this double programme involves communities and landowners, private individuals as investors, non-government organisations, tour operators, tourists, donors, industry and government. Today, East African member states, along with the Tourism and Wildlife Management Department of the East African Community Secretariat, are working together to share and circulate information to the public, organise exhibitions, market the programmes and educate the local masses about the benefits of these innovative forms of tourism.
One of the challenges facing some member states is the inadequacy of skilled manpower in this expanding sector. East Africa must move swiftly to close this skill deficit. Expert knowledge and full understanding of the industry must start from the top in each country by those who are charged with formulating and implementing pertinent policies. Taking refresher courses or attending global conferences such as the one organised by TIES in Kenya, later this year, is one way of staying informed. It takes knowledgeable, articulate leaders to effectively court the local and international partnerships required to marshall the human and financial resources that transform domestic and eco-tourism into a winning formula.
The writer is an experienced hotelier and tourism professional