Hottest Tourist Spot of 2009? Africa

This year has been downright dreadful for the travel and hospitality industries. From New York and Las Vegas to Spain and Australia, the number of visitors is way down as the global recession has forced people to put off vacations. But there are a few destinations that are defying the downturn and drawing more travelers. The hottest spot of 2009? Africa.

Tourism in Morocco, Tunisia, and other parts of North Africa is up 6% through April, according to a recent report by the U.N.'s World Tourism Organization. Visits to Sub-Saharan Africa have risen 2% from a year earlier, led by arrivals to Kenya, which have surged 59%. The July 2 report also mentions "encouraging results" from Mexico, Cuba, Jamaica, Guatemala, Honduras, and Chile, as well as Korea, Taiwan, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.

The increases come as tourism overall has fallen 8%, to 247 million international arrivals, from 269 million in 2008. The greatest drop-offs are in Europe, which is down 10%, North America, off 7%, and Asia-Pacific, where foreign visits are 6% below year-earlier totals. South American travel is essentially flat, with a 0.2% rise.

North Africa has become a quick and affordable getaway for Europeans, thanks to beefed-up service by low-cost airlines EasyJet (EZJ.L) and Ryanair (RYAAY). Another big reason for the upturn is the stronger euro, which makes accommodations and sightseeing even cheaper, notes Michelle Grant, a travel analyst at Euromonitor International.

Renewed Demand for Wild-Game Safaris

Kenya's growth has a lot to do with pent-up demand, says Gerard Bellino, vice-president at Carlson Wagonlit's leisure division. Violence last year following disputed elections scared off many travelers to its wild-game parks. Now, as the nation has calmed down, they're flying in to go on safari this year.

Bellino says other countries on the continent, such as South Africa, Zambia, and Botswana, are holding up, too, along with Central American destinations such as Belize and Costa Rica. These spots offer "light adventure ecotourism, which lets people get back into nature," he says.

Americans are also discovering Africa. While the number of outbound U.S. passengers declined 9% in the first quarter vs. 2008, according to preliminary government figures, flights to Africa jumped 30%. U.S. air traffic to the Middle East was also up 30%.

Why? Because overall traffic is down so much, airlines and hotels are offering better deals, which may be encouraging more vacationers to jet off to the developing world. "People are taking advantage of a down market for things they may have had to save more and longer for in the past," says Bellino.

Extra Amenities Can Seal the Deal

And it's not unusual for travel agents to negotiate more these days with providers for "added value" items such as complimentary dinners or an extra night's stay when a client is on the edge for a more exotic vacation. "Adding extra amenities is much easier in this environment," Bellino says. And when it's a high-ticket item—a nine-night guided tour in Kenya can start at $2,200 per person, not including airfare—a 15% savings can be substantial.

Still, despite its better 2009 numbers, Africa's tourism industry remains puny. The continent took in $29 billion in international tourism receipts in 2008, or just 3% of the global market. By comparison, the world generates that much revenue from foreign travel every 10 days, according to the U.N. organization.

But Africa's share is growing. Foreign visitors to the U.S. have plunged 14% this year, and domestic U.S. trips are down, too. With South Africa hosting the World Cup soccer championship in 2010 and formerly off-limits countries such as Libya now open to U.S. visitors, Africa may get even hotter.

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