Tourism gets tech savvy in Southern and Eastern Africa

Digital Content

Pristine beaches, wild animals and vibrantly colourful cities - Africa has something for everyone.

No wonder more than 40 million people visit Africa every year, according to the World Bank, and that number is rising fast.

Research group Euromonitor International says tourism income has risen from $42bn (£25bn) in 2011 to an estimated $54bn in 2014.

Competition to attract this tourist cash is fierce and technology is becoming an increasingly powerful tool in the battle.

For many, Cape Town - situated on the continent's southern-most tip and famous for its beaches, penguins and Table Mountain backdrop - is a "must-see" destination.

"Technology has levelled the playing field in terms of how you market a destination," says Enver Duminy, chief executive of Cape Town Tourism.

"I think technology and innovation has affected the tourism industry perhaps more than any other industry."

Mr Duminy's organisation began looking at ways to use technology to reach potential visitors, as well as interact with those that choose Cape Town as a regular destination.

"Just before the 2010 World Cup, which was held in South Africa, we realised we had to innovate," he says.

"We don't have the same budgets as other big cities and the exchange rate was not in our favour. We saw a mega trend in the shift to digital and we embraced that."

The most recent innovation has been the creation of a mobile visitor information vehicle known as Thando, which means "love" in the local isiXhosa language.

The vehicle offers visitors free wi-fi along with LCD [liquid crystal display] screens and the ability to make bookings and secure trips at roving locations.

Personal commentaries

For most travellers, the use of mobile has opened a world of opportunities to explore and understand the places they are visiting.

A small South African start-up called VoiceMap is trying to bring a local feel to walking tours with the use of smartphones and GPS technology.

Founder Iain Manley travelled around the world for many years before returning to South Africa and getting involved in GPS-triggered commentary on cruises and open-top bus tours.

He soon found that there was something lacking in the big box product.

"When we were doing the commentary for Cape Town's open-top bus tour the single voice idea didn't work at all because Cape Town has so many different communities and the history of the city is so contested. The same is true of cities all over," he says.

This gave him the idea of creating a platform to enable people to record their own personalised GPS-based commentaries. Anyone can go to the VoiceMap website and use the publishing tools to create some sort of walk and put their voice over it.

The company also has an iPhone app and is working towards launching an Android version soon.

VoiceMap's platform enables people to add their own personal commentaries to walking tours

The person creating the route commentary can decide if they want to offer it for free or charge a small fee. After the usual payments are made to the likes of Apple and PayPal, profits are shared between the storyteller and VoiceMap.

Mr Manley believes that technology is uniquely placed to change the way people perceive Africa and travel within it.

"I think there is a lot of stereotyping in terms of what it means to go to Africa and people don't appreciate the nuances," he says.

"Not only every country, but every city and place, has a completely different identity. Technology obviously provides people with a way of communicating those different identities and [allows] others to access those nuances," says Mr Manley.

Breaking with tradition

Thanks to technology, remote places, as well as small businesses, can now reach a global audience and encourage people to move away from the traditional African experiences and be more adventurous.

Damian Cook is the managing director of Kenyan-based E-Tourism Frontiers, an initiative aimed at developing online tourism in global emerging markets.

He comes from a traditional tourism background, but after many years in the industry he noticed the growth of technology in the sector and how Africa was lagging behind.

Security concerns in countries like Kenya and South Sudan have not helped.

"I saw what Bill Clinton called the digital divide - technology that should have been helping emerging and developing economies was actually harming it," says Mr Cook.

"It was rather a slow process lobbying government and I realised that the private sector could do it themselves if trained and given the right connections and resources."

He soon started holding training seminars on how businesses could be more effective online, and lobbied government for better internet connectivity and e-commerce solutions.

"Social media has changed the game because, for the first time, people are getting referrals not from any official sources but from clients," he says.

"People are coming into the destinations with smartphones, getting access to free wi-fi and... constantly broadcasting their experiences."

One success story E-Tourism Frontiers tells is about a small lodge off the Tanzanian coast that embraced social media and turned itself into a "must-visit" destination.
Ras Mbisi Lodge Ras Mbisi Lodge in Tanzania has used social media to raise its profile

According to Mr Cook, the Ras Mbisi Lodge relies completely on social media for its marketing, and thanks to an active and innovative Twitter profile has been featured globally in numerous travel and lifestyle magazines.

'Increased challenge'

But many obstacles remain when it comes to bringing tourism and technology together, such as limited internet bandwidth, relatively high costs and skills shortages.

And the team at E-Tourism Frontiers warns that putting the technology ahead of the tourism experience can result in a lacklustre offering.

"We have also found that there is an increased challenge in terms of keeping up with market expectations," adds Mr Cook, "especially in regards to social media, locally based content and mobile applications."

Despite these challenges, tourism is booming in Africa, buoyed by a resurgent economy and a more digitally connected world.