Encouraging tourism to Ivory Coast

This morning the Ivorian Ministry of Tourism held their first ‘tourism breakfast’ for those in the sector to meet the minister and debate a particular subject. The government is looking to to double visitor numbers to 500,000 by 2015.

While the breakfast is worth applauding and attended by more than a 100 people from the industry, I was disappointed by the institutional nature of the discussion. Sadly bureaucrats (or functionaires as they call them here) think they know the solution to any problem; more laws, more documents, more state aid and greater applicability of the texts. Some of this is helpful, but I fear a great deal is either wasteful or counter-productive.

They key topics were as follows; the presentation of rules and regulations for the enforcement and regulation of hotels and restaurants so that every restaurant is inspected and given a star rating. Secondly, the ministry is paying for what no doubt will be an expensive tourism guide for Ivory Coast in the form of a magazine that will be principally seen by public officials.

I think the authorities are missing the point slightly – I can only see these as being of secondary importance to boost tourism in Ivory Coast.

The problem with the rating system

In theory, there’s nothing wrong with a rating system, and it may be a way to raise standards. However, I fear, that the biggest impact will be to divert ministry resources that would better spent elsewhere and will increase the paperwork for tourism establishments. The desire to categorise is as old as man, or at least the first public official, but does it really make a significant contribution to raising the number of visitors? I’ve travelled to a variety of countries on a variety of continents and I don’t think I’ve ever once considered a star system when making a choice of hotel or restaurant.

The problem with the guide

Communication, as we know, is important. Sometimes though, I get the sense that ministries feel like they’re not communicating unless they have their in-house glossy magazine, produced at great cost, but which has minimum impact. Anyone who has seen the in-house magazine of the Ivorian Treasury will know what I’m talking about. It is almost scandalous that anyone in 2011 is spending time discussing the ins and outs of a ministry magazine when the tourism ministry has a website that doesn’t seem to have been updated for four years, while the government’s “Cote d’Ivoire Tourisme” division’s website, was built in 2005. I know of talented people in the private sector who are planning magazines that meet all the objectives of the ministry and yet will cost the government nothing! Perhaps it’s worth letting the private sector do the job.

When I say an ‘institutional magazine’, some of you won’t know what I’m talking. These sorts of things always take a similar form, and having seen the plans for this guide, it will be no different. First article – a word of welcome from the editor, then an article by the minister, accompanied by a photo of him in a suit, following by an article by another senior official, accompanied by a photo of him in a suit, followed by another article in the same vein.

Back to basics

It seems to be that at a basic level, boosting the tourist sector is quite straightforward. (Well, one way it’s quite straightforward is that the only tourists that are counted are those that come through Abidjan airport, so start counting those at the borders, and the numbers are bound to go up – something the government is planning to do).

But more seriously, first of all you need to tell visitors to come (communication and marketing), then you need to make it easy for them to come (information, visa service, arrival) and thirdly you need to make sure they have a great time (quality of service, plenty to offer, etc).

Here are a few practical suggestions;

1. Design a practical, attractive website for the country’s tourism industry that isn’t overly complex but does the job, is kept up to date, and has email addresses and telephones that people pick up. Regular communication and responsiveness to queries are more important than flash graphics.

2. Make tourist visas available at the airport, so you don’t have to get them beforehand, and even better make them free. Why make it difficult for people to visit your country?

3. Concentrate efforts on key assets. I would suggest these are the following – the city of Abidjan, Banco, the beaches, Bassam, and 1-3 national parks.

Abidjan – the majority of visitors come for business, and in 2015 that will still be the case. But give this captive audience something more to do – encourage a handful of cultural activities; museums, parks, water cruises, galleries – to complement the existing restaurant and night life scene.

Banco – totally underused, but I think one of Ivory Coast’s key assets. Very few cities in the world have a protected tropical rainforest at their heart. Even fewer have one that no-one visits, which is the case here. Invest in i) protecting the park ii) communicating about the park iii) making a visit interesting (tree top walks are a great way to add something special). Most people aren’t going to leave Abidjan for a national park, so concentrate on the one they can get to.

– the beaches – get a big resort back up and running in Assinie, encourage some hotel complexes in certain parts of the beachfront. Then, advertise, advertise, advertise (let the photos talk).

Bassam – Ivory Coast doesn’t have all the coastal forts of Senegal and Ghana (though there are some), but Bassam is special. Get behind efforts to put it on the World Hertitage list, and starting making Quartier France a five-star attraction.

national parks – first a reality check – West and Central Africa will never have the tourism industry of East Africa – the game are different and most of it is hiding in the forest that tourists will never see. Now that’s understood, concentrate on a select elite market that will travel to visit one or two parks and concentrate on giving a few people an expensive but rewarding time. For beach tourists (the principal dedicated tourists), offer them interesting day trips to local parks and reserves where the nature is protected and viewable.

I’m not a tourism expert, so you’re welcome to dismiss these thoughts, but I just wanted to see what people think.

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9 Responses to Encouraging tourism to Ivory Coast

  1. I’ve seen this tourism bureaucracy at work in a variety of African countries. All your suggestions are right on the mark.

  2. Thank you for your long and pertinent paper following the launching of tourism matinees. Contrary to what many people believe, I am not a specialist of the sector. I have not been trained in tourism and am not even a fan of the topic, but I have been a hotel and restaurant client for as long as I can recall (I started at the age of 3 or maybe younger with my parents and even more with my grand-father in Italy, a country which delivers the best restaurant service than l have ever experienced). I have traveled extensively both for business and leisure purposes until 2000. I still have all my meals outside home since I have no proper home. I also have a true and devastating passion for hospitality industry, restaurant, consumer service and the marketing of services. Before purchasing Best of Africa, I joined a continuing education program in the management of restaurants and hotels followed by internships in a hotel and a 5*Parisian restaurant. But mostly culinary taste, restaurants, hotels and how to market them; consumer behavior… are passions. I take every opportunity to learn more about those fields, reading extensively, buying books and reports….
    Before those recent and disastrous experiences in Cote d’Ivoire, I have been trained in audit, was an international tax lawyer then working in private sector development and judiciary and legal reforms on behalf of international or regional donors.
    I agree with you about too much bureaucracy and too much of rules, new rules, new laws, and new implantation devices that most of the time are at best wasteful.
    The rating system and norms
    There I completely disagree with you. As long as long, hotels and restaurants are not rated in Cote d’Ivoire (and that is true for most countries in Africa) you can’t expert develop tourism. It’s especially true for Cote d’Ivoire which is a completely new destination. Not only it is important, as you mention, to raise standards (which presently are very low), but also to build a minimum of trust. You have never considered a star system when choosing a hotel or a restaurant. What were you criteria then? Word of mouth is very good, but you can’t ordinary people to have a friend and a reliable friend everywhere in the world, or even in any region of your own country, especially if you are not a journalist. Even if you do have a reliable friend, she may have been in the place two or three years earlier and everything has changed in between, especially in Africa where more often than not hotels are not well maintained and are managed by family rather than professionals. No hotel can escape the star system. It’s the international rule of the industry. Every single booking service or tour operator will ask you how many stars you have. I strongly believe that it’s much better to leave the decision of classification to an outside organism (whether public, semi-public, private) than to the hotel owner. The paper work is not that much and the cost that high. I experienced it. You have to fill up a 6 or 7 pages form detailing your business: number of rooms, air-con or not, hot water or not, open all year round or not… A few weeks later a group composed of people from the ministries in charge of health, buildings, commerce and tourism + the local administration (for alcohol license and so on) + the hotel industry (FNIH) come and visit you, your rooms, kitchen… Those people are mostly civil servants and have been doing that kind of job for a long time. You don’t have to hire consultants or a specific firm to do the job. The only cost is transportation and a little bit or paper and ink. Periodically, a 20 or so group (composed of the same organizations) convenes and classifies hotels and restaurants that have been visited.
    I completely agree with you about the in-house magazine. There is already one and it’s inadequate: the graphic and print are poor, the pictures are fuzzy, and all is shown are official visits of the minister or his advisors. We don’t need another one. One is enough. One is too much.

    Designing a well designed, practical and attractive designed website: of course. The only difficulty is for the time being you have almost (except for Abidjan and surroundings such as Bassam) nothing to post: most hotels outside Abidjan, Abidjan and Assinie don’t have any telephone that people pick up and no email or at least no Internet connection. I was the only hotel in the Sassandra region with a connection (even if a very expensive one: dialup at 400 CFA francs per minute until 2005; lowered to 55 CFA per minute until now). A few Sassandra hotels had email addresses, but would rely on a friend, a parent to check them on. More recently (October 2010) I sent a mail to place a reservation with the President Hotel in Yamoussoukro. I am still waiting for the confirmation. But worse I finally called and made a reservation. I spent a night there for one main reason; to have a bath. Unfortunately, I had none; all I could get was lukewarm water and very little of it and a grayish porcelain. All I got for dinner were hot prawns that tasted OK, but considering how sick I was, were not. That is just an example out of many.
    I therefore strongly believe you have first to have hotels, standards and independent updated classification (the last one dates back to 1997 or so. As an example, Best of Africa which has been built in 1998 has never been classified). And later on, website, privately owned magazines, seminars, art show, tours and all kind of communication… will be welcome.
    You are 100 % right about the visa. The tourism administration knows that pretty well, but it so sensitive that I am not too optimistic in abolishing it. Making tourist visas available at the airport (as it is done in Mali, Burkina and many other African countries) would be a huge improvement.
    Concentrating on key assets: I completely agree and I agree with the selection you have made. There are many others and, in my opinion, maybe even better assets which are art (East Africa has none or little compared with Western Africa); traditional culture, food and cuisine; the south-west beaches and forests, the Sassandra region and its history and pieces of architecture (the wharf and the Weygand bridge); the rocks and cliffs in many regions such as Tiassale and Sikensi (one hour drive from Abidjan), Odiene, Fresco and Sassandra, etc., etc. and even more important: people. Ivorian people are much nicer than many other inhabitants in many potentially competing destinations.
    But first things first. Otherwise it would exactly be as many firms do in Cote d’Ivoire (especially cellular phones companies): they advertize goods and services they don’t have. Consequently, the customer feels frustrated, angry and no longer wants to hear about the company. The trust is broken. I would not like that to happen to Cote d’Ivoire destination.

  3. An excellent article from John James, and an equally excellent reply from Beatrice. However, I think Beatrice’s last all but one line says it all: “the trust is broken”.

    I would have liked to have attended the breakfast, and it is a shame I wasn’t invited … I have worked the hotel, restaurant and bar trades (commonly known as the hospitality industry) since I was 14 years old, and have performed just about every role, and worked every position, conceivable in that industry.

    I agree with JJ about glossy brochures … a complete waste of time. I agree with Beatrice about a rating system, in Europe and North America, potential visitors watch closely the ratings systems, whether it is Gault & Millaut, Michelin, Ministry of Tourism or what else.

    My biggest concern, and it is a question of perception, because I have no proof, unlike Beatrice who appears to have had a mild dose of food poisoning, is health and hygiene issues in these establishments!

    I work with a company who undertake hygience audits, and I can tell you it is very frightening to discover in certains kitchens, conditions which normally have provoked serious and widespread food poisoning and deaths (of which there have been a few cases in the past (Vavua 2001 6 deaths; Labokro, nr Yamoussoukro 2002 25 deaths, etc). And with the problems experienced in Cote d’ivoire over the past years, with ineffective government adminstrations, and the virtual lack of control and inspection of catering establishments, statistically, there will be more cases of food poisoning. I remember in one establishment where I used to work in Abidjan that the Fire Inspection Certificate, and the Food Safety Certificate were paid for with a 3 course meal for the visiting inspectors (the team got larger, and the members fatter, each year!)

    As for visas, I think the whole international community should revisit the need for visas … as far as I am concerned, they are complete waste of time, and probably cost more money to produce than the revenue they generate.

    Assets … if you have ever been to that living animal cemetery here that they laughingly call a zoo, you will realise that Cote d’Ivoire has a problem. It is the most pathetic place I have ever visited. I agree with JJ about Banco completely. I would move the zoo next to Banco, and use the capital from the sale and development of the current zoo site (prime position in Abidjan) to develop more museums, cultural centres, tourist attractions, etc. What about the lagoons? Where are the Bateau Mouches as you see in Paris on the Seine?

    Finally, until Cote d’Ivoire is perceived to be peaceful and safe, with all overseas foreign ministries lifting ALL travel restrictions, then any major effort on developing tourism here is likely to be a waste of time … the best way to develop tourism here is to create a politically, economically, sociologically and militarily, safe and secure place to both live and visit.

  4. Veronica Bento says:

    As you all pointed out, the glossy magazine is a waste of time, paper and money. I am not quite sure what they try to achieve with it. If you are trying to attract tourists you want to spend your money and time in a tool that will be available worldwide, not on some magazine that will be read by a few.

    I totally agree with Craig and Beatrice for the rating system. It is a good way to push for a better service and it is a reliable indicator for tourists . However, as Craig pointed out, you can easily “buy your stars”. If your clients safety costs you a 3 course meal, your “stars” will probably cost you less. I am aware that “the practice of the little envelop” is as old as business itself. Yet, in some case they should get some sense of responsibility. Sadly, as long as they won’t have that, any kind of rating will be a bit useless.

    Although, canceling visas or making them available at the border is a great idea; I can understand why they don’t make visas available at airport. They must get some sort of revenue out of it; revenue that they can control. In the airport, it will quickly become a mess and a good way for the airport police to make personal money. The government will have a hard time controlling it. Let alone, not being able to “control” who gets in or out of the country. They should do something about it, perhaps make visas easier to get, without canceling it.

    As for the assets, there is so much more in Ivory Coast than the few we talked about. Although they need to start somewhere, I hope they will not stay focus on this precious few for the next decade.

    In my opinion, Ivory Coast is in the right path to become what it used to be, but at the moment, I am really glad I am not in Charles Aké Atchimon shoes.

  5. Hudin says:

    I’d also toss in there to build a very, very short 450m bridge across the lagoon to Jacqueville. That ferry is a waste of resources, but that small, old town is a nice visit with quiet beaches.

  6. Alfred Mach says:

    Thank you for the posts. I am studying tourism and hospitality management and doing a research on Ivory Coast. Can someone help me with the current state of tourism in the country, the statistics and the policies that are being implemented in as far as tourism is concerned in Ivory Coast.

  7. I am so happy to find this website. I am living in Harper, Liberia and planning to visit Abidjan in early April. I am making my list of places to visit from the locations you are all discussing. Is Best of Africa a hotel? a restaurant? What is the address? I’d love to experience it. What are the recommendations for hotels?

  8. Pingback: GHANA: SCRAP SHORT TERM TOURIST VISAS-UPDATE « MADinGhana’s Blog

  9. I actually blog as well and I am posting a little something related to this article,
    “Encouraging tourism to Ivory Coast | DROGBA’S COUNTRY”. Do you really mind if perhaps I personallymake use of a bit of of your own concepts? Thank you ,Krystal

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