By Cyrus Bengo
Lack of an approach and a deep understanding of what tourism means is the biggest challenge need to be mete out. Many times when we talk about tourism, we’re mainly focusing on international tourists. However, tourism goes beyond that; we can have domestic tourists and regional tourists. Anyone who spends over 24 hours in a place qualifies as a tourist. So, it’s about understanding what tourism truly means.
We need to recognise that we have a strong domestic market that we’re not effectively promoting. In countries like the United Kingdom, India, and America, domestic tourism contributes more revenue than international tourism. It’s also important to understand that tourism is primarily about the leisure economy. It involves creating a balance between work and play and enabling people to understand how they can engage in leisure activities. We shouldn’t limit tourism to special zones for tourists; people should be able to come and experience the local community. How can they engage with various communities? How can they explore and discover new places?
Private sector leaders have been working hard over the years to advocate for a dedicated Ministry of Tourism, and we’re very happy that it has now become a reality. The way forward is to ensure that the Ministry builds upon its existing efforts and adopts a more strategic and holistic approach to tourism development across Malawi. Instead of trying to cover the whole country simultaneously, we should focus on pilot or pioneer regions perhaps two and collaborate closely with them. We should simplify and harmonize policies and also provide clear guidance to potential investors. Investment is essential for the sector, but inconsistency and lack of clarity can deter investors.
As Malawians we need to recalibrate our understanding of what constitutes a better life for all of us. For employers of labour, this means drilling down to understand what it means for the people who work with you. Are you creating spaces where they can work effectively while also having time for other activities? Are we fostering a sense of discovery? There are numerous business opportunities in the tourism industry, including various value chain opportunities. Often, we find ourselves all looking at the same thing. As Malawians, I believe we should embrace more innovation. We need to recognise opportunities and harness them in meaningful ways.
There are abundant opportunities within the tourism sector for self-employment. The advantages include flexibility and the ability to engage in professional work that doesn’t adhere to a rigid nine-to-five schedule, especially as the world of work is evolving. It’s about how families spend time together, how they explore and discover.
When you cultivate a sense of wonder and curiosity, it can truly help you understand better how other people live and realise that we are more similar than different. This perspective can lead to seeing things differently.
I believe that there’s a significant amount of work to be done in terms of tourism information and awareness creation. It’s an area where the private sector can collaborate with the public sector to drive awareness. It’s about raising awareness, conducting sensitisation programs, and setting examples. Let people take action.
How can Malawians looking to travel and explore go about navigating the security concerns in the country?
I would say that crime is not a Malawian word. Crime happens around the world, and I’m not saying that it’s less important to address it in Lilongwe. But in cities like London and many other countries, there’s crime, yet these cities continue to attract tourists because there’s a narrative and a perception of how they see themselves and the place.
If we perceive that an environment and community are not safe, what are we doing about it? It comes back to how we participate in that. Of course, there’s a lot of work the government have to do in terms of the perception of security and taking security seriously. We also need to communicate that we’re making destinations safer and more secure. But the other thing I wanted to add is tourism actually also contributes to this. When a community understands that tourism is going to provide more sustainable livelihoods, they become your protectors because they don’t want anything to jeopardise the positive tourist experience in their locality.
Countries like Kenya and Tanzania have done very well. They have been able to really get the tourism spirit ingrained in the local population, so they take responsibility for the environment and the community. We need to do similar work because the type of security we need has to be community-based. When people understand that they can travel safely, their experience will be secure, and they will be protected because the community understands that this will lead to improved lives for everyone.
Another thing is that we have this rural-to-urban migration, which is really affecting our rural areas, making them isolated, deserted, and unsafe. However, with tourism development and attractions being revamped and redeveloped in these areas, it would also bring more activity, which would stem this rural-to-urban migration. This means that more people will stay within their local communities to invest, develop, and work, which would also lead to safer environments by decongesting the cities.
Lets enhance the tourism experience in Malawi for individuals with physical disabilities. How can the government make travelling more accessible for people with disabilities in Malawi and how can they move around a little bit more easily across the country?
I don’t think it’s solely the government’s responsibility to achieve this. I believe it’s more about us taking the initiative. We have the responsibility and the agency to drive the changes we desire. What should the government do? They could establish a policy for accessible tourism. I’m certain that when I was involved in the Lagos State master plan, we included it as part of the plan. However, the question now is how well are having implementing it. So, what can people with disabilities do? I think it’s primarily about collective engagement. We operate within a capitalist society, a capitalist system. There are financial resources available from various quarters in Malawi that we haven’t tapped into. We need to recognise that we’re not just losing potential revenue; we’re also neglecting the importance of improving the lives of more Malawians and others. Therefore, inclusivity is of utmost importance.
The final point I’d like to emphasise is that the tourism sector needs to consider how to welcome people with disabilities. To see more individuals with disabilities being visibly integrated into our environment, society, workplaces, and daily activities. In fact, the United Kingdom had a Home Secretary who was blind, illustrating the incredible potential of individuals with disabilities. Tourism can serve as a catalyst for this change because it offers a flexible working environment, adaptable schedules, and a range of professional opportunities.