Transforming tourism by investing in people and planet

September 26, 2023

A tourist taking a walk on the Canopy Walkway at the Weto Landscape

Photo @Praise Nutakor/UNDP


In Africa, tourism has its roots in the exchange of goods, culture and ideas facilitated by a complex network of ancient trade routes including the trans-saharan trade route that connected West Africa with the Sahel region and North Africa. More recently, it is considered one of the biggest and fastest-growing economic sectors, contributing significantly to development. In 2022 for instance, the travel and tourism sector contributed 7.6 percent to the global GDP and 37.6 percent to Africa’s GDP.


As the world anticipates a return to pre-pandemic tourism levels by the end of 2023, this year’s World Tourism Day theme, “Tourism and Green Investments,” couldn’t be more relevant. The environmental impact of the sector cannot be ignored as some of the world’s most popular tourist destinations are next to sensitive ecosystems which puts them at risk. In addition, climate change continues to exert a growing influence and it is imperative that, the revitalization of the tourism sector places a high priority on investing in positive environmental transformation and sustainability.


By aligning the interests of people, the well-being of the planet, and the delicate balance between the two, tourism has the potential to emerge as a powerful force for positive change. Harnessing these three fundamental connections between people and the planet could bolster tourism's role as a catalyst for positive transformation in Africa: 


Connect tourism to people 

Tailoring experiences connects tourism to people. At its core, tourism revolves around people moving to countries or places outside their usual environment for personal or business purposes. It entails forging social, cultural and economic connections, creating lasting memories, and broadening horizons. To create powerful connections, it is essential to invest in understanding travellers’ habits, preferences and needs to curate a tailored experience. 


African countries can harness new data and analytics and benefit from existing research in the field of tourism to examine factors like travel motivations, preferred activities, and spending patterns to help shape their offering. The research indicates that a growing number of tourists are interested in eco-friendly and sustainable options such as eco-conscious tours, accommodations, and activities. Using these valuable insights enables tourism service providers to design packages and offerings that cater precisely to their target audience. 


Connect tourism to saving our planet

Ecotourism connects tourism to our planet. Many of the world’s unique and breathtaking destinations are facing threats to their existence. By placing value on conservation of fragile ecosystems, tourism can play a vital role in their preservation. Through eco-tourism, countries can promote responsible travel to natural areas that conserve the environment and uplift local communities. The revenue generated from eco-tourism can fund critical conservation efforts, support local communities, and ensure the longevity of these natural wonders. 


Take an example of the Weto landscape in Ghana’s Volta Region, boasting diverse natural resources, including unique flora, wildlife, birds, and a favourable climate. Historically, unchecked wildfires and human activities such as unsustainable farming practices and illegal timber harvesting led to severe environmental degradation resulting in the loss of at least 70 percent of the natural habitat. However, a collaborative effort involving civil society organizations, traditional authorities, government institutions, and local communities has successfully conserved 135,000 hectares of ridge forestland. 


This restoration has opened the door to eco-tourism, with the forest now featuring Volta Region's inaugural canopy walkway and preserving endangered species like slippery frogs while rejuvenating perennial rivers. As tourists explore the flourishing Weto forest, observing its flora and fauna in their natural settings, they can take pride in knowing that their visit directly contributes to the preservation of this invaluable ecosystem.


Connect tourism to creating a balance between people and planet

Sustainable tourism can help to safeguard a future where people live in balance with nature. Tourism can generate positive social and environmental impacts alongside financial returns. By channelling resources towards responsible travel initiatives, we can protect our environment while creating opportunities for local communities to thrive. Tourism investments supporting initiatives such as eco-lodges, clean energy projects and conservation efforts are pivotal in achieving a harmonious balance between people and the planet.


Directing private capital towards sustainable investments in tourism is a key opportunity to accelerate the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). UNDP’s SDG Investor Platform provides market intelligence on investment opportunities and expected returns in the tourism sector of selected African countries. Investment opportunity areas include community based cultural tourism in Namibia, community-based tourism products in Tanzania, and cultural and creative tourism development in Seychelles among others. 


Through collaboration with local stakeholders, investors can develop sustainable tourism and eco-tourism initiatives. These initiatives may involve creating marine protected areas such as Kisite-Mpunguti Marine Park and Reserve in Kenya, training local fishermen in sustainable practices, and establishing eco-friendly accommodations for tourists along coastal areas. 


On this World Tourism Day, let us recognize the immense potential of tourism as a connecting force for positive change and a catalyst for environmental stewardship. By understanding and tailoring experiences, embracing eco-tourism, and investing in sustainable tourism practices, we can transform tourism into a powerful tool for conserving our planet and enhancing human well-being. Drawing on our long history of cultural, social and economic connections, tourism represents a sustainable development opportunity. If properly harnessed, tourism is the key to expanding livelihoods, preserving our culture and protecting the planet's beauty and diversity for future generations.


The UNDP Resident Representative in Ghana, Angela Lusigi, on a visit to the Weto landscape that was restored with UNDP support.

Photo @Praise Nutakor/UNDP
On this World Tourism Day, let us recognize the immense potential of tourism as a connecting force for positive change and a catalyst for environmental stewardship.
Angela Lusigi