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Comment: Africa is being left behind

Tourism can help the continent develop and thrive, but without it people face stark choices, says ATTA chairman John Corse, who is director of the Tanzania Association of Tours Operators

‘Can I have a job?’ I’d never been greeted this way in Tanzania until recently and I was shocked to hear it as I panted up the hill on my bike.

One of the things I love about living in Africa is the friendliness and greetings that are a way of life. You just don’t pass someone by on the street, road or path without wishing them the time of day.

Arusha has been one of the fastest growing cities in Tanzania and is blessed with a good enough climate to reliably grow crops at least once per year. It is the country’s safari-tourism capital so, in normal times, we have a strong, sustainable local economy.

People do often ask for jobs, but never before in such a desperate way to this sweating cyclist on his way to work.

Why are people desperate?

When the coronavirus pandemic struck our tourism industry in March 2020, businesses had to react fast to survive; people were laid off, camps and lodges closed, vehicles mothballed and those lucky enough to keep their jobs were reduced to half-pay or less.

There is no furlough scheme, you’re on your own here. Luckily, many people had a plot of land they could plant on, maybe some savings they could fall back on and a few months’ hiatus of tourism was deemed manageable.

September didn’t seem too far away when the tourists, we thought, would come rushing back. Now into the second year of Covid, and daily life is a lot tougher.

The emerging middle class is faltering, nobody can afford school fees and those that were laid-off have not been rehired yet.

Globally, tourism is the most sustainable form of wealth distribution, conservation, intercultural understanding and appreciation that we have – and it’s on its knees.

Thanks to the likes of David Attenborough, we know these natural landscapes and ecosystems exist in Africa, and the rest of the world, and we feel better for it. But their security is under threat from development.

‘Is that wildebeest more important than feeding of my family?’, people might ask. Or ‘is it more important than the education of my children?’ Of course not.

Tourism removes the need for that binary choice. With tourism, we can have our wildebeest and our development. Indeed, they become co-dependent. Isn’t that amazing?

Even if we can’t afford a safari in Africa, we know the world possesses these wonderful tracts of vibrant nature and, deep inside, we feel better for it. Crucially, we now know that they are essential to the well-being of ourselves, and our planet.

And why is development so important in these far-away places? If the humanitarian argument doesn’t move you, perhaps the increasing inequality of opportunities that drives illegal migration and conflict might. That’s why the UK’s development budget is so vital to UK security.
Yet, for Africa, that will drop by 66% this year. According to UK aid agencies, bilateral aid to specific African countries was £2.44 billion in 2019, £2.22 billion in 2020 and is expected to be just £764 million this year, a figure confirmed by the UK Foreign Office (FCDO).

The UK was one of the biggest colonisers of Africa (or administrators in the case of Tanzania). It has, I believe, an underlying obligation to those countries that funded much of its industrial and military success and the wealth of its institutions today.

The recent cut in the UK’s overseas aid budget, although supposedly temporary, is illogical.

Add the confused and damaging ‘red list’ travel policy painted across this continent and it feels like the UK is gradually turning its back on Africa with its overcautious, and increasingly isolated, stance.

Africa is being hit by a double whammy and it almost feels deliberate.

Certainly, life looks set to improve in Arusha as many countries have already or are considering allowing travel for fully-vaccinated visitors.

So it is likely there will be a few more tourists over the next few months from the USA and Europe. But not, I fear, from our oldest and second biggest market, the UK, which appears to have morphed from global pioneering conqueror to declining isolationist irrelevance.

The UK needs to recognise the cost of living in fear, restore its spirit, and take back its place in the world as a nation of outward-looking, responsible advocates of travel, curiosity and discovery.

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