Tourism: How Sustainable is Nature-based Cultural Diplomacy for Africa

A review of the African tourism strategies and their limitations in serving as cultural diplomacy

January 04th, 2018
Vincent Karatunga, CD News

Tourism can serve as the number one tool for cultural diplomacy and a critical foreign income earner for many countries in Africa. Many tourists flock to Africa to venture in the wilderness seeking to find mostly animals and birds in their natural environment of the reserved national parks.

The catchword for attraction to these ventures is ‘Safari’ a Swahili translation for ‘game drive.  It suffices to mention ‘Masai Mara’, ‘Serengeti’, ‘Queen Elizabeth’ or ‘Murchison’ National Parks, all these located in the East African countries of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, and you have all the attention of Europeans and Asian tourists you want.

Unfortunately, all these resources are nature-based. By nature here, we refer to the fact that they exist because they are a gifr from nature. Given the tropical natural vegetation’s and forests, these resources shrive better in that part of the globe. The reality today however, is that, natural conditions are changing very fast.

The critical noted changes here include; climate change, environmental degradation and population explosion in most African countries which harbour the famous game reserves in the region. Because of the pressure exerted on these natural endowments for Africa, it may not take long for such resources to become extinct.  The critical point here is how sustainable are these nature-based resources for Africa because of challenges they face!

As climate change takes effect on the industry, nature-based resources upon which this sector depends to flourish are rapidly diminishing. These include; vast plains of savannah grasslands, thick tropical forests, diminishing heavy amounts of rainfalls as a result of desertification and large water bodies which used to be characteristic of the region. According to the 2016 report from Uganda National Forest Authority for example, the country is losing on average 122,000 hectares of forest   per year from 1990-2005. The greatest loss is established at 250,000 hectares of forest annually for the period 2005-2010. 

Forest clearance to give way for farming in Uganda is one of the critical factors that will affect Nature-based tourism in Africa (Photo by courtesy of the New Vision, Monday, 13 November, 2017)

Population explosion equally has an impact on the otherwise vast plains of land thus, creating tension between humans and the wild life. Given that the natural environment which is the natural habitat for wild life is diminishing at an unprecedented rate and being replaced by human habitat, soon or later, most of the species will disappear. Competition for resources between human beings and wildlife is creating a lot of tension. The result is that human beings are turning out to be number one enemy of the wild game which otherwise is the biggest foreign income earner of their countries.

Poverty on the other hand, which is characteristic to most African rural communities, is another impediment hampering the sector. Rural communities form neighbourhood with nature-based resources which enhance tourism.  Given that most of these communities depend on subsistence survival for a living, it makes co-existence with the wild game very difficult.

Sophisticated methods of poaching and illegal trade in some wild species which are a lucrative business between African and Eastern Asian countries, have gravely affected this sector.    This coupled with corruption in the sector, especially among those who are supposed to protect the industry, are negatively impacting on tourism in the continent. As an aspect of cultural diplomacy in Africa, therefore, nature-based tourism is likely to suffer a big setback. Some rare species which attract big numbers of tourists to Africa are diminishing very fast.

As a result of these and many other factors affecting the sector, nature-based tourism which has been the biggest source of cultural diplomacy in Africa will no longer be viable. After all, many European and Asian countries which have been the major source of nature-based tourism are now developing their own in their home countries with even better facilities and infrastructure.

Take for example, the case of Uganda. The country has undertaken the project of showcasing its weather, wildlife, culture, investment opportunities and location as ultimate destination with an aim of attracting more visitors to the country. Such a venture involves a lot of investment in terms of inputs. Whether such inputs resonate with the much expected output, it is difficult to gauge.

Unless within the strategy the country has put in place mechanisms to mitigate climate change, environmental protection, poverty eradication especially among the rural communities and population control; which are very critical factors to the transformation of the sector, its efforts to reap big from the industry may be frustrated.

The way forward for most African countries which have in the past overly relied on nature-based tourism is; like China and Japan, to diversify by planning to invest in knowledge-based economies, while putting a lot of energy and resources on science and technology. These are the only sustainable and reliable tools for cultural diplomacy.

Through science and technology for example, Japan uses economic power as its critical aspect of cultural diplomacy. Actually, because of her science and technology, Japan has managed to influence and attract many nations to embrace her cultural diplomacy. Because of its art, dance, architecture, film, pop music, theatre, luxury goods etc, Japan has become a global attraction.

While in 2016, Uganda’s nature-based tourism industry was able to contribute to GDP a mere 6.1715 trillion ($1.8b), which is 6.6% of GDP, Japan attracted $ 343.2 billion. In comparison to the two countries, this is a significant difference in terms of inputs and outputs.

As a way forward, in terms of transition from global periphery to the centre, African countries need to re-strategize and diversify; from basically a nature-based tourism aspect of cultural diplomacy to a more industrialised economy form of cultural diplomacy.


  • The New Vision, Uganda’s Daily, 5 November, 2017 -
  • The New Vision, Uganda’s Daily, 13 November, 2017 -
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