By Larry Luxner
JOHANNESBURG -- Several years ago, tourist officials from throughout southern Africa -- eager to lure well-heeled visitors to their countries -- looked to the islands of the Caribbean for inspiration and liked what they saw.
The result: Retosa, an acronym for Regional Tourism Organisation of Southern Africa.
"As far back as 1992, the region realized it was essential to work together in order to be effective," says executive director Shepherd Nyaruwata. "Retosa itself is similar to what the Caribbean Tourism Organization is doing. In 1993, when the region was beginning to look at the rest of the world, we began exchanging ideas with Caribbean tourist authorities."
Like southern Africa, the Caribbean is spread out across a large area, encompassing over a dozen countries and territories that speak many languages and have little in common except for poverty, an African heritage and a lingering colonial mentality that hurts -- rather than promotes -- economic development.
Yet the Caribbean also boasts spectacular natural beauty, and millions of tourists a visit the region every year, pumping billions of dollars into island economies; the most important destinations are Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, the Bahamas, Jamaica, Cuba, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Aruba.
Tourism to southern Africa, on the other hand, is extremely uneven. Just one country, South Africa, accounted for 52% of the region's13.4 million tourists last year -- more than the combined tourist arrivals of Retosa's 13 other member nations: Angola, Botswana, Congo, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Around 70% of those 13.4 million tourists were from within the region, i.e. South Africans visiting Namibia, or Swazis crossing the border to Mozambique -- not exactly tourists in the true sense of the word. The AIDS scare and concern about violent crime has hurt South Africa, and in some countries like Congo and Angola, fierce tribal wars have slashed tourist arrivals to zero.
Clearly, when it comes to attracting visitors from the North America, Europe and the Far East, southern Africa still lags way behind the Caribbean.
"Basically, we're trying to establish southern Africa as a destination in the minds of tour operators, travel agents and tourists. We're also looking at establishing partnerships," says Nyaruwata, a 47-year-old Zimbabwean with a bachelor's degree in geography from Oxford, and a planner by profession.
"Initially, the main office was going to be in Mauritius, because the infrastructure was there," he told African Business. "But we eventually decided to put the headquarters in Johannesburg, because it's the commercial and airline hub of the region."
Retosa's budget is quite small -- $900,000 this year, rising to $1.1 million in 2002 -- with 80% of its funds coming from member nations, and the remaining 20% from the private sector. Each country pays the same amount regardless of its size, says Nyaruwata, noting that "if they contribute equally to the budget of the organization, they'll have an equal say."
Established in 1997, Retosa is the official tourism body of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC). As such, the chairmanship of Retosa changes from year to year. Its board of directors consists of two members from each country -- one from the private sector, one from the government.
"We are meeting our objectives," says Nyaruwata. "In our 1998-2002 business plan, the key objective was to maintain a 7% annual growth of tourist arrivals to southern Africa, and that has been maintained. Secondly, we aim to provide adequate promotional material, initially for the travel trade, and then for the consumer, third to establish communication with the travel trade and overseas."
Retosa's representative in New York, BCA Communications, handles all media and public-relations functions in the United States. In Australia, the organization is represented by Integra, and in France by Interface Tourism. In Germany and the United Kingdom, Retosa works directly with tour-operator associations.
Asked why tourism to the region is growing, Nyaruwata says "because of the end of apartheid, because of the novelty of South Africa as a tourism destination for people who couldn't travel there before, and because of Mandela."
Indeed, says Hans J. Prenner, general manager of the Michelangelo Hotel in Sandton, a wealthy suburb of Johannesburg: "Ten years ago, nobody knew about southern Africa, but everybody knew about Kenya. Nelson Mandela represented a major shift."
Werner Beddies, owner of Discover Africa in Windhoek, Namibia, says southern Africa today receives just 2.3% of all world tourism expenditures.
"Over the past 10 years, tourism in southern Africa has become an integrated industry," he said. "People usually have three weeks in each country. When all the troubles started in Zimbabwe, we lost Victoria Falls, one of our most important attractions. We've lost not only international tourism, but local tourism as well. We cannot operate in isolation. That's why Retosa is so important."
Last year, he said, around 350,000 tourists came to Namibia, of which 60% were Germans, 20% South Africans and the rest from Europe.
"We're moving very strongly into opening new markets," he said. "This used to be mainly a traditional German destination. The Brits would rather go to Zimbabwe, since it was a British colony. As you know, Germans are not very language-friendly, especially the older generation. For that reason, Namibia was very comfortable for them."
In the past few years, there's been lots of interest in Namibia -- so much so that Walvis Bay Airport is reportedly being enlarged to handle Boeing 747s. Earlier this year, the Namibian Tourism Board was inaugurated.
"We're very positive about our tourism board because it was encouraged by the government," said Beddies, adding that the Deloitte & Touche accounting firm recently won a tender to advise the Nujoma government on tourism policies.
Another bright star on the Retosa map is Mozambique -- a country known for its beautiful Indian Ocean beaches but ravaged by civil war. Until recently, it was ranked by the World Bank as the poorest country on Earth, but in the last five years the country has seen its GDP grow as fast as 12% annually.
"Mozambique has the highest potential for tourism of all the Retosa member countries," said Nyaruwata. "Southern Sun, a South African hotel chain, has moved into Mozambique. During the Portugese period, the level of development was very limited."
One of Retosa's long-term objectives is to promote so-called "peace parks" that straddle international boundaries. Two such parks now exist -- one on the South African-Mozambique border, the other on the South African-Botswana border. "The idea is that once you're in there, you can cross back as many times as you like," said Beddies.
In addition, Retosa is working to have visa requirements eliminated for nationals of 12 countries effective Dec. 31, 2001. These countries are Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, the United Kingdom and the United States. Most Retosa member countries exempt these travelers already, though some, like Mozambique, have cumbersome visa requirements that discourage tourism.
As for a unified visa system, in which one visa would be valid for all 14 Retosa member countries, Nyaruwata says such a scheme is at least five to seven years away.
Asked if Retosa is effective, Beddies says it's beginning to be.
"We've had a mentality in southern Africa of everybody doing his own thing," he said. "All of a sudden, people now have to work together. This goes against our nature. It'll take time, but I believe Retosa is on the right path."