Africa: Russian tourist market ripe for the picking

The number of Russian tourists visiting African destinations is steadily increasing due to rising incomes and the desire to have uncommon wildlife experiences, according to travel agencies.

Preferred destinations for Russians are mainly Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia in North Africa; Senegal and Gambia in West Africa; and various countries in Southern and East Africa.

Russians enjoy travelling to natural environments without compromising luxury, Felly Mbabazi, executive director of Moscow-based Safari Tours that specialises in eco-tourism to East African countries, told IPS.

“Apart from the abundant flora and fauna, the African continent has a lot of historical sites like Elmina in Ghana; Timbuktu, a city dating from the 12th century; Fort Jesus in Kenya — to mention but a few. We have friendly people,” Mbabazi said.

The Russian ministry of tourism organises periodic exhibitions which have helped to popularise African countries as tourist destinations.

“It’s not an easy task. Many Africans are not aware of the large tourism market that has emerged after the economic changes in Russia. Surprisingly, some people don’t even know where Russia is on the world map,” exclaimed Maria Badakh, events and sales director at the travel division of International Tourism Exhibitions (ITE). ITE is a company that arranges the exhibitions with the tourism ministry.

According to the Federal Tourism Agency of Russia, the Russian market of outbound travellers rose to nearly 15 million in 2007, growing by nearly 25 percent compared to 2005. The World Tourism Organisation forecasts that Russia will become the tenth biggest country of origin of outbound travels by the year 2020.

Public education about tourism opportunities is needed, Badakh said. “Russians travel everywhere nowadays. They like safari and beach life, waterfalls and mountains… many Russians like extreme tourism. If tourist agencies persistently focus on the African market, they will get more Russian tourists. They are big-time spenders.”

Only a few African countries — such as Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Senegal — have shown interest in participating in the international tourism exhibitions held annually in Moscow, according to Grigoriy Antyufeev, chairperson of the committee on leisure and tourism of the Moscow city council.

Egypt is the one African country which attracts significant numbers of Russian tourists. An official at the Egyptian embassy in Moscow said tourism to Egypt is thriving, accounting for approximately 20 percent of the country’s foreign exchange revenue.

“We have international airports that provide direct access to almost all the tourism destinations. The good climate all year round is another reason for Egypt’s popularity,” said Ismail A. Hamid, who directs the tourism department at the embassy.

The East African country Ethiopia has intensified efforts to attract more Russian tourists. The Ethiopian embassy in Moscow helps Ethiopian tour operators with information about the Russian tourism market.

In March this year, representatives from six major Ethiopian tourism organisations and the Ethiopian ministry of culture and tourism participated in an international tourism exhibition held in Moscow. Their participation will continue annually.

“Russian tourists are interested in seeing our historical and religious sites because the religions in both countries are Islam and Christianity. We have very old churches that are of interests to Russian tourists,” Amha Hailegeorgis, a spokesperson from the Ethiopian embassy, told IPS.

Ethiopians have had friendly relations with the Russians for many years. Over 25,000 Ethiopian students have studied in Russia, strengthening relations further, Hailegeorgis said.

“The main problem in Russia is the lack of adequate business information about Africa. We provide brochures about our tourism spots and create possibilities for Russians to directly contact Ethiopian tour operators. As a result of these efforts, the number of Russian tourists going to Ethiopia has increased,” he said.

Ethiopian authorities are looking at extending the Ethiopian airline’s operations to Moscow.

Yury Sarapkin, vice-president at Russian Business Travel and Tourism, an association that represents travel agencies, told IPS that African countries still have to put a lot more in place if really they wanted to attract more Russian tourists.

“There are many wealthy Russians who are interested not only in investing in African economies but also in developing the continent’s tourism spots to make them more attractive for holidaymakers.

“It is, however, important for African authorities to realise that Russians will invest if Africans also make conscious efforts to create more favourable conditions on the continent for tourism. The potential undoubtedly exists for this,” Sarapkin emphasised.

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