Calls are mounting for the country to do some serious soul searching over how it has handled the tourism sector whose contribution to gross domestic product remains dismal yet it’s the same sector that is driving economic development in other countries on the African Continent.
Government has designated the month of September Tourism Month but question marks surround the tourism package that Malawi is trying to sale to the outside world, with others even claiming that Malawi has failed to develop a tourism package to give Malawi’s tourism sector competitive advantage.
Malawi’s over-reliance on tobacco as the major foreign exchange earner despite the tobacco market being riddled with unending challenges, both domestically and internationally, is being quoted as one of the reasons the country has failed to fully utilise the economic opportunities that sectors such as tourism present.
Between 2010 and 2013, the tourism sector’s contribution to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was stagnant at 1.9 percent with revenue from the sector hovering between K19 and K21 million. Ironically, the sector grew by 5.6 percent in 2015 from 5.9 percent in 2014 largely on account of increased growth in the conference and corporate subsectors following the opening of the Bingu International Conference Centre and the Peermont Hotel in Lilongwe, according to statistics contained in the latest Economic Review released by the Reserve Bank of Malawi.
An economic commentator, Agrippah Phiri, blames the status quo on Malawi’s failure to build on the “Warm Heart of Africa” theme to attract more tourist inflows.
Despite Lake Malawi being the biggest tourist attraction for the country, Phiri warns that it will be hard to fully tap into the tourist potential of the lake if Malawi continues to dilly dally with the construction of an airport in the main lakeshore district of Mangochi.
“We also need to work on our standards of service delivery including infrastructure and manpower. Transportation and tourism infrastructure such as good affordable hotels for average income tourists who are in the majority, as well as high end for the very wealthy and discerning tourists.”
He also blames the pricing model that most hospitality facilities are using for the low tourist inflows. As of 2014, the country only received about 800,000 visitors.
“Local transport network, especially to the main tourism areas, is not well developed. I am sure that if there were regular coach services, such as on weekends, to the lake, many people would be able to patronise local tourism facilities. Pricing is also an issue. Most places are unaffordable even for the middle class,” he said in an emailed response.
Phiri said Malawi also needs to develop and build a uniquely Malawian experience for the potential tourist, such culture, food, ceremonies, et cetera.
An economist, Ephraim Chirwa, who once worked as Publicity Secretary for the Economics Association of Malawi, said in the absence of tourism products with the Malawi brand, it will be difficult for tourists to be attracted to visit Malawi.
Chirwa said despite the tourism potential the country has, there has not been a clearly developed tourism package to give Malawi competitive advantage.
“We need to define what tourists will enjoy when they visit Malawi. The fact that Malawi has Lake Malawi with fresh water running in it is not enough. We must create products.”
Earlier in April, government incorporated the Ministry of Tourism under the Ministry of Industry and Trade but some experts expressed pessimism over the viability of the decision. Their arguments are that the ministry requires dedicated staff and resources if there is any hope that the country can position it as one of the drivers of economic change.
Commenting on the changes then, economic commentator, Rafiq Hajat, said tourism holds the key to Malawi ’s future prosperity but that it needs a dedicated ministry to oversee its functions if that is to become a reality.
“We have all the elements for a successful tourism industry developed as it should and then you wonder how the same sector is a major foreign exchange earner in countries like Kenya,” he said.
And Chancellor College economics professor, Ben Kalua, said he does not see the new arrangement working.
Kalua said the Ministry of Industry and Trade in Malawi is already incapacitated, therefore adding another important portfolio such as tourism is suicidal to the Malawi economy.
“It’s a very important ministry. Elsewhere it’s very heavily resourced,” he said.
Kalua said unless government is prepared to channel more resources to the Ministry of Trade to handle its new responsibilities, then he does not see the new arrangement working.
Meanwhil e government expects changes that will be made to the National Tourism policy to address some of the challenges. Government is currently holding consultat ive meetings with stakeholders in the industry.
Director of Tourism in the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Tourism, Isaac Katopola, said lack of resources has been the major challenge for government’s failure to develop the sector. He, however, said plans are in the pipeline to construct an airport in Mangochi and that the ministry is consulting with the Ministry of Transport to improve the road network in the lakeshore district.
“The Ministry of Tourism does not work in isolation. We need support from a l l stakeholders.”
A tourism expert earlier warned that the negative publicity around prospects of hunger in Malawi this year are also likely to impact on tourist inflows into Malawi. Stan Phiri, who is Chairman of Malawi Tourism Association and also Director of Sunrise Ground Tours, said it is likely that tourists will be diverted to other destinations; a development he said is likely to worsen revenue Malawi gets from the sector.
Earlier in April, Malawi was declared a state of disaster following unfavourable weather conditions that impacted on food production. And according to Phiri, such reports coupled with the new visa regime will cause tourist flows to dwindle further.
In October, 2015, Malawi introduced a new visa regime on all tourists from countries that charge visa fees on Malawians visiting their countries. At the time, the Malawi Council of Tourism claimed that the tourism industry lost close to $1.2 million in cancellations
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