By Lesson Masiano:
In recent decades, tourism has represented one of the most, if not the most, dynamic industries at global level, with growth rates surpassing every economic branch. Although inroads are being made to make rural people beneficiaries of tourism, the sector is largely dominated by the urban space and the urban population as evidenced by the policy direction and the allocation of resources.
Malawi’s economy has largely been driven by the primary industry like agriculture, fishing and, to a less extent, quarrying although there are diminishing returns from the sector. Of major concern has been the slowing down of the tobacco industry amidst global health concerns and subtle capitalist manoeuvres.
The performance of the manufacturing sector continues to face serious hurdles that undermine its potential to reduce poverty especially in the rural countryside through optimal utilisation of agriculture and environmental resources.
Consequently, the call for the government and other stakeholders to diversify the economy is becoming louder and deafening. One such sector believed to be underutilised is tourism.
Development agencies and policymakers are increasingly advocating tourism as a viable and legitimate poverty reduction strategy in least developed countries. Elsewhere in Africa the tourism sector is a money spinner raking billions of dollars in annual revenue and employing thousands.
However, in Malawi, efforts to mainstream tourism as a tool for poverty reduction in rural areas are not coherent and lack long-term investments in the rural enclaves of the country. Although Malawi has been undergoing structural transformation from the agriculture to the non-farm sector, the pace of job creation has been slow and still remains lethargic.
The quest to scale up consumption of tourism products in Malawi is premised on the need to gain foreign currency that helps to keep the country ticking as they replenish the national foreign reserves crucial for meeting any country’s demand for imports.
However, there are some tourism frontiers that have not been harnessed to bring benefits to the social and cultural aspect of the country. There are several tourism assets – both manmade and natural – that the country is not leveraging for the benefit of society.
For instance, despite its rich cultural heritage and designation as a World Heritage Site by Unesco World Heritage Committee in 2006, the area is still waiting for its tourism breakthrough. As a result, local communities in Chongoni have not really experienced any substantial direct or indirect benefits from the proceeds of tourism in the area.
Promoting local tourism should be high on the radar of aligning tourism with rural development. Amidst the Covid-19 pandemic the country experienced a decline in the inflow of foreign tourists due to travel embargos among countries in an apparent attempt to curtail the spread of the virus.
That should have been a wakeup call to make locals the primary drivers of tourism. Most tourist centres were deserted and unemployment took a heavy toll, and up to date we haven’t recovered. Imperatively then, we should rethink of improving local tourism as an alternative to grow the economy from within without wholly emphasising foreign currencies.
Many attractive tourist centres have been viewed as no-go zones for locals due to exorbitant prices charged in dollars. Maybe the narrative of why tourism is important should be holistic, encompassing the benefits that are accrued beyond gaining the foreign currencies.
To make tourism respond to the needs of the local people, the government and other stakeholders should put in place infrastructure at local tourist centres that should house artefacts, artworks, handicrafts, books and other materials worthy stimulating the tourism mind.
Our museums and art galleries are established in metropolitan places, further disenfranchising the rural masses. Young unemployed people who would have been engaged as tour guides and some who would have sold their artisan works to tourists lose out.
The strengthening of rural tourism benefits will curtail the rural urban migration while increasing agricultural production, improving infrastructure development and sustainable ways of using and conserving the environment.
We should also look at tourism in terms of its intangible value, just looking at what the sector can do to the country which does not bring any monetary gains. Travelling to appreciate cultural aspects of other people is essential in building a peaceful community based on tolerance, respect and diversity.
Culturally, we are a people with varying cultural aspects that, when not properly managed, can explode and derail development efforts in a country. Recently, Malawi has experienced strong cultural and tribal affinity that threatens national unity and development.
Tourism can contribute to knowledge of other places, empathy with other peoples and tolerance that stems from seeing the place of one’s own society in another person’s perspective. Tourism is a positive force, able to reduce tension and suspicion by influencing national politics, international relations and thriving of cultural diversity.
Tourism endeavours aimed at appreciating diverse cultural aspects inculcates the spirit of pride in local and national culture. Cultural pride is one of the major ingredients that spur local communities to develop sustainably as they dig deep to tap from their collective potential.
Local communities should be adequately empowered to be primary beneficiaries of tourism products in their territories. Community governance structures should be strengthened in order to avoid any exploitation of tourism benefits.
Tourism has and continues to assist and exploit the most vulnerable and impoverished people in the world. This then calls for vigilance on the part of communities to own tourism resources and make them assets for development.
It should also be incumbent upon community members to understand the landscape of the areas in terms of products that can be harnessed to help their communities reap from the bounties of nature or any manmade monuments like historical buildings at Fort Jonson at Makanjira in Mangochi.
That, however, calls for local people to expand their environmental as well as historical knowledge and evaluate how certain peculiar cultural aspects and unique natural features can improve their standard of living and quality of life.
The World Bank Group posits that self-employment is key to increasing income growth and offering resilience among the rural folk. However, this self-employment highly correlates with agriculture which is susceptible to climate change challenges. That is where tourism comes in to mitigate these economic downturns.
As long as the rural economies are not the primary focus for expanding the sector, tourism shall always be an elite industry and the gulf between the rich and poor will continue to widen. While tourism is unlikely to be a panacea for global or local poverty, it can have profound alleviating effects.
In Malawi, the sector remains unexploited and suffers from structural deficiencies like infrastructure, education and awareness. Despite boasting of one of the most beautiful geographical features and diverse cultural heritage imbedded in unique traditional dances, historical monuments and friendly people, our tourism sector has never been buoyant to transform lives of the rural masses.
The author is a graduate in History and Education from Chancellor College. He likes writing on political economy and development.