Brazil, Russia, India and Nigeria are among the emerging market countries that are failing to capitalise on their tourism potential, according to analysis by Renaissance Capital, an emerging market-focused investment bank.
Nigeria generated tourism revenues equivalent to just 0.1 per cent of its gross domestic product in 2015, according to data from the IMF, compared with 2.3 per cent in nearby Ghana, 3.8 per cent in Rwanda and 6.2 per cent in Madagascar. Out of 43 African countries for which there is comparable data, only the Democratic Republic of Congo benefits less from tourism.
India, Russia and Brazil — each of which have obvious tourist attractions — are also labelled as serial underperformers by Charles Robertson, chief economist at Renaissance.
The trio generate tourist receipts equivalent to 1 per cent, 0.6 per cent and 0.3 per cent of GDP respectively, as the first chart shows, less than war-torn Iraq achieved as recently as 2010.
“The climate in Nigeria is not that different from that in Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia or Thailand. Lagos has a long beach sitting alongside it, just like Rio [de Janeiro]. Ghana doesn’t have anything more to offer to tourists than Nigeria,” says the much-travelled Mr Robertson, when asked why tourists might make a beeline for Nigeria, while the insurrection by jihadi group Boko Haram is confined to the country’s north.
He estimates the country could generate $8bn a year from tourism, rather than $500m, if it reached the standards of Ghana.
Equally, Russia would generate an extra $6bn a year if it matched the tourism share of equally northerly Canada (1 per cent of GDP), or $18bn if it matched the 1.9 per cent of France, which Mr Robertson believes its attractions are comparable to.
Brazil’s poor showing in the tourism stakes is “hard to explain”, Mr Robertson says, although its distance from the main population centres is likely to be a factor. And while India has been more successful, given its “intense beauty” in parts, he believes “it could be doing a lot better”.
Mr Robertson’s thesis is that all of these serial under-achievers suffer from onerous visa regimes that deter many potential visitors.
Russia, for instance, requires an interview in person, fingerprints and a list of every county visited in the past five years. Pakistan, another country that generates tourism revenues equal to just 0.1 per cent of GDP, requires details of every country visited in the past two years, an invitation letter and proof of accommodation and finances.
Too often these convoluted visa requirements are the result of misplaced pride, Mr Robertson argues.
“Friends have described the humiliation of applying for visas in western embassies, such as where a British official peers at you as if assuming you’ll overstay your visit and end up in the informal economy,” he says.
“Russian, Indian and Nigeria officials have often stated that if the west makes it hard for their citizens to visit the west, then western visitors should expect the same treatment in return.”
However, Mr Robertson argues that the main economic loser here is the poorer country which, more often than not, has more to gain from facilitating inbound tourism by people from a wealthier nation.
And while reciprocity in visa regulations may sound fair, it overlooks the reason why many western countries have tight visa regimes — illegal migration is clearly a higher risk when people are travelling from a low to a high-income country than when they move in the opposite direction.
As such, Mr Robertson lauds Georgia where, until recently, “passport officials not only granted you an automatic visa on arrival if you came from a country richer than Georgia, but handed back your passport with the gift of a small bottle of Georgian red wine and sometimes a smile”.
This approach has helped Georgia raise tourism revenues from 3.5 per cent of GDP in 2008 to 13.8 per cent in 2015.
David Scowsill, president and chief executive of the World Travel & Tourism Council, agrees that laborious visa requirements are a “key issue . . . hampering freedom to travel and creating an obstacle to the economic and social benefits travel and tourism can bring to countries”.
However, Mr Scowsill says there are signs of progress with, for example, India launching an e-Tourist visa programme that now covers 113 countries, in an attempt to become more accessible.
Partly as a result, he says India’s travel and tourism revenues are likely to rise by 6.6 per cent this year.
As for Nigeria, he believes Africa’s most populous country is “struggling with the effects and perceptions as a result of the violence and terrorism it has been suffering and, to a lower degree, from the lingering effects of the recent Ebola outbreak in the region”, as well as a longer-running failure to fully integrate tourism into the national economic agenda.
WTTC data do at least suggest Nigeria’s travel and tourism revenues will rise 4.2 per cent this year, however, unlike Brazil and Russia where the trade body sees declines of 1.6 per cent and 1 per cent respectively.
The WTTC is advocating the greater use of “smart visas”, incorporating the use of biometrics, to replace the manual processing of visas in consulates.
To Mr Robertson, though, the gold standard is the treatment he received on a recent trip to Laos, where “the whole process of landing, applying for a visa, going through immigration, picking up luggage, changing money (at a very good exchange rate) and getting into a taxi took less than 30 minutes”.
Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, the number of tourists visiting the south-east Asian state rose from 14,400 in 1990 to 4.7m in 2015, while revenue jumped from $25m to $725m over the same period.
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