By David Cogswell
On the weekend of Jan. 26-28 the New York Times Travel Show took place at the Jacob K. Javits Center in New York City, with more than 560 exhibitor booths and more than 30,000 attendees. Travel companies and destination marketing organizations from around the world gathered there to take their individual shots at gaining the attention of the American traveling public, and securing a share of the vast U.S. travel market. The U.S. economy is the largest in the world, and the battle to gain a share of that market is fierce and highly competitive. But the fruits of success are sweet.
In the African Pavilion on the trade show floor were many exhibitors from Africa, including the tourism marketing organizations from South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana, Morocco, and Egypt. Notably absent from the lineup was Nigeria.
Kenya, with its advantage of the Great Migration, has been a major tourism destination for Americans for decades. But apart from its natural tourism assets, the country’s success with tourism is a result of its constant work year after year to market itself aggressively in the U.S. market.
South Africa entered the tourism market after the country held its first democratic elections in the early 1990s and has worked diligently year after year to mount marketing campaigns to build its presence in the market and to keep itself in the sights of Americans. As a result, South Africa has reaped the economic benefits of a strong tourism industry.
South Africa was one of the sponsors of the New York Time Show, which gave it the advantage of getting possibly the best floor space in the exhibit hall, right in front of the entrance. South African Tourism, one of the most effective marketing organizations in the global travel industry set up a lavish booth next to the entrance, designed with the country’s signature red color and its symbols and logos, so that it could not be missed by anyone who attended the show.
South Africa’s tourism marketing has helped make tourism one of the staples of South Africa’s economic development, and it is a kind of development that penetrates to all levels of society. In the country’s first 20 years as a democracy, it tripled its tourism arrival numbers. As a result of South Africa’s hard-working marketing specialists, tourism continues to grow and build year after year in South Africa, bringing a strong and sustainable lift to the country’s economy.
Egypt has been a major tourism destination for Americans since the rise of transatlantic air travel in the 1960s, and in spite of ups and downs over the years, remains a powerful draw for Americans, and tourism is a major economic force in the country, helping to support a large percentage of the families across the nation.
Even as Egypt has struggled with ups and downs, it maintains its marketing efforts to counter bad publicity and misperceptions about the country as well as to encourage people to see its incomparable attractions.
Tanzania has made great strides over the last 10 years with its marketing efforts and has risen to the point of rivaling its neighbor Kenya, with which it shares the Great Migration, but which had a long head start in tourism marketing.
Botswana has worked its way from being virtually unknown in America to be among the top African tourism destinations for Americans. Ethiopia has been working in recent years to reverse bad perceptions that linger from political troubles back in the 1980s and is gradually turning itself into a tourism success story, which is a surprise to many who had written off the country’s tourism prospects and assumed countering the negative publicity would be a virtual impossibility.
So where does Nigeria fit into all this? As Africa’s most populous country and one of the most economically developed countries on the continent, Nigeria should be front and center in the tourism market. But instead, it is essentially off the map for Americans.
Nigeria remains virtually unknown to the majority of Americans. All African countries who want to market themselves as tourism destinations must counter a huge amount of negative publicity about the African continent, most of which is distorted or just flat wrong. And Nigeria is no exception to this.
Even though many African Americans have ancestral roots in West Africa, that part of the African continent remains largely off of the tourism map to Americans. Nigeria’s image in America suffers from the general misconceptions about Africa in America as well as from the bad publicity of specific news stories, such as the Ebola story that devastated tourism across the continent of Africa a couple of years ago.
Recent incidents of bad publicity for Nigeria include public comments of the current U.S. president who referred to Africa in the worst possible terms and spoke of Nigeria as if everyone there lived in huts. In terms of marketing itself as a tourism destination to Americans, Nigeria has a lot of work to do to counter false negative stories and to get across the true story of Nigeria as a vibrant, culturally rich and economically dynamic country, with rich urban culture, amazing wilderness areas, and beautiful beaches.
While the American market is huge and powerful, and securing even a tiny portion of it can be a huge economic boost to any country’s economy, it is an extremely crowded and competitive market. Americans are probably exposed to more media images on any given day than people in any other country. Anyone trying to market to that public must compete against a massive number of adversaries. Getting the attention of Americans is a huge challenge. But the rewards for success are great.
If Nigeria were to mount its own promotional campaign, it could also reap those economic benefits. And tourism helps bring the people of one country together with those of another country and promote understanding, so besides being good business, it is also good international diplomacy.
Let’s hope next year we see a Nigeria booth at the New York Times Travel Show!
David Cogswell is a freelance writer based in the United States whose writing has appeared in many publications, including Travel Weekly, TravelPulse.com, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, Fortune, Fox News and Luxury Travel magazine. As a confirmed Afrophile, he has traveled to many countries in Africa countless times over the last 20 years.