The Thorn Tree Café in Nairobi, Kenya, is an ordinary pavement café with an extraordinary past. A thorn tree, once famous for its message board, now in its third generation, grows in the centre of the café and still holds letters, notices and announcements left there by passing travellers. Although mostly symbolic nowadays, the tree in the 1900’s, functioned as a makeshift post box for travellers who left mail pinned onto its trunk, and a meeting point for backpackers in Africa.
This legendary landmark, at one time a watering hole for British royalty, writers and celebrities alike (including Ernest Hemingway, Clark Gable, and Winston Churchill), may well be one of the first and most illustrious examples of niche tourism in Africa.
Today, travellers can log on to travel guide book publisher, Lonely Planet’s own online Thorn Tree travel forum for up-to-the-minute listings.
The progression of communication from tree-mail to cyberspace is a clear example of how the tentacles of technology have penetrated every aspect of our daily lives. It also contains two important warnings that tourism industry stakeholders would be wise to heed:
1. A solid technology infrastructure foundation is critical for business success
2. Modern day travellers are tech-savvy and demand the kind of services that are enabled by high speed connectivity.
Niche tourism – defined as the tailoring of specific tourism products to meet the needs of a particular audience/market segment – is on the rise throughout Africa.For tourists, niche tourism offers a more meaningful set of experiences in the knowledge that their needs and wants are being met. From an economic development perspective, niche tourism also presents several lucrative prospects. These range from helping to diversify the tourism industry by creating new markets, and stimulating the creation of quality jobs requiring specialised skills, to producing higher yields per visitor in terms of foreign exchange earnings and consumer spending.
The small but noteworthy economic hubs that are springing up in the most out-of-the-way places, as a result of niche tourism, should be taken seriously as steady contributors to the GDP. For them to grow and prosper, entrepreneurship should be encouraged and supported, but even more importantly, the technological building blocks to enable this growth, including high speed connectivity, should be firmly in place.
High speed connectivity is no longer a nice-to-have, it has rapidly become as essential to tourism as sunny skies, waving palm trees and white sandy beaches. According to a March 2019 document published by the World Bank on poverty and inequality, access to internet is essential for businesses, public institutions, and households to flourish in the modern economy.
But we knew that already, didn’t we? What we are still getting our head around is understanding the significance of connectivity as the enabler of other technologies. Acknowledging the value of secure, reliable connectivity, is the first step to overcoming the digital divide.
The conundrum for many African tourism service providers is that they are hamstrung by the very thing that often gives them their competitive advantage: location.
In many instances, it is the remoteness that gives certain niche tourism destinations their singular appeal. One just needs to consider desert, wildlife or photographic tourism to appreciate the technological challenges that exist.
This is where the provision of transformative infrastructure becomes the game changer.
The availability of technologically advanced services, such as satellite services and fibre networks, means that access to internet connectivity is bringing about digital transformation in many areas across the African continent. This includes the niche tourism sector, an industry that still has the potential to grow exponentially, creating employment and entrepreneurial opportunities.
According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, travel and tourism in Africa grew by 5.6% in 2018 compared to the global average of 3.9%. This makes Africa the second-fastest growing tourism region, after Asia-Pacific. A fact that cannot be ignored as the continent searches for ways to sustain its burgeoning populace.
Access to high-speed internet and cloud-based services can support the growth and economic prosperity of all individuals and businesses who derive their income from tourism activities.