Africa does not figure on most non-Africans’ top vacation destinations, but it should, even if you have a baby. My husband, our 19-month old and I have recently done a lot of traveling in Southern Africa, i.e. in South Africa (multiple self-driven safaris in Kruger Park, hiking around the Drakensbergs, a couple weeks in Cape Town and wine country), Swaziland (more safaris, crafts and culture), Namibia (a giant road trip from the lush green northern border with Angola all the way down through the deserts and canyons of the south, by way of Windhoek and Swakopmund, and safaris in Etosha), Mozambique (guided safaris, beaches, more beaches, amazing snorkeling and scuba diving) and a quick drive through Botswana (we stopped in a rhino sanctuary and in Maun on our way to Namibia). We’re avid travelers, but certainly not perilous ones, especially with the baby in tow. Most of the world only hears about Africa as a monolithic continent full of wars and diseases. Hardly descriptions that entice travel, much less vacation tourism with a baby.
So let me dispel a few myths. Firstly, Africa is not a single country. It consists of 54 separate countries, which might seem like a lot, but it is the world’s second largest continent (Asia, the largest, has 48 countries, including really big ones like China and India). There are 14 African countries that rank less and least peaceful according to the Global Peace Index (or between 135 and 160 out of 162 ranked countries). But that leaves 40 in the peaceful to more peaceful categories, 23 of which are ranked more peaceful than the United States. And while the ebola epidemic was dangerous and tourists did well to stay away from ebola-affected countries, now it only has widespread transmission in Guinea and Sierra Leone, Liberia has established control over the epidemic while Nigeria, Senegal and Mali were previously affected but no longer are. So if you subtract ebola-affected countries from African countries that would make for a good holiday, that still leaves you with 35 countries to choose from (Mali and Nigeria already being amongst the least peaceful countries so not double counted). While there are other diseases such as malaria and yellow fever, most tourists have access to preventative measures. And as long as you aren’t engaging in sex tourism, then you should be safe from AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.
The 35 remaining visitable countries in Africa are as varied as Morocco’s souks and Madagascar’s biodiversity. But I’ll speak to the 5 southern African countries we’ve visited in the last year and a half: Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Swaziland. We just did a quick drive through Botswana on our way to Namibia but were duly impressed by the quality of the roads and the expansive plains. We’ll definitely come back for a longer visit.
In Mozambique, we drove from Maputo (the capital which lies at the southernmost end of the country) up to Gorongosa Park (about half way up), stopping at several endless beaches along the way, most notably Bazaruto Marine Reserve which boasts some of the world’s best scuba diving and snorkeling. Gorongosa was reputed to be one of Africa’s best safari parks in the 1950s and 1960s, but decolonization and a 20 year civil war killed off much of the larger animals which are now being reintroduced. The flora still remains impressive.
Namibia which became independent about the same time the peace deal was signed in Mozambique has a much more developed tourism infrastructure, despite it being one of the world’s least densely populated countries. Good roads, breathtaking scenery and good services put Namibia high on our list of recommendations.
South Africa is the most developed country in the region, although if you venture off the tourist tracks, it’s not difficult to come across highly underdeveloped areas; not surprisingly, given that South Africa has one of the highest levels of economic inequality in the world. That being said, it has something for everyone: from world class dining and wineries for the foodies, extensive safari parks and reserves for the animal gawkers, and a variety of outdoor activities for the adventuresome, all available at varying price points, not to mention a thriving consumer culture with local fashion, crafts, art and jewelry for the shoppers.
Finally, Swaziland’s small mountainous kingdom has an extensive road network, lush landscapes and high quality crafts, making it an easy place to visit as part of a Mozambique beach trip and/or Kruger Park safari. The country has clearly invested in tourism with perhaps the best signage in the region.
Of course war and violent conflicts are big deterrents to tourism, but it doesn’t help that all of Africa is lumped together in much of the world’s imagination. So war anywhere on the African continent is likely to deter tourists to any African destination. Compounded by the fact that many African countries haven’t invested as much in tourism as they could, including in advertising campaigns to distinguish one country from another. So while the distance from Paris, France to Kyiv, Ukraine is only 2,400 km (about a third of the distance from Maputo, Mozambique to Khartoum, Sudan), the psychological distance is much greater as France has continued to increase tourism revenue despite the war in Ukraine. I would argue however that the African continent as a whole suffers from high profile conflicts such as Sudan, Mali, and DR Congo, much the same way Turkey and Egypt historically lose tourists whenever there is a resurgence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Although Egypt’s recent political turmoil has really sealed the fate of the country’s tourism.
But much more localized conflicts also negatively impact tourism. Last year, Gorongosa Park in Mozambique saw almost no visitors because a 100 km stretch of road in the Gorongosa region was under attack by rebel forces of the main opposition party. The park itself was totally safe—most visitors don’t even take that road to get to the park—and yet no tourists wanted to risk it last year.
All that to say, when it comes to tourism, peace is profitable. So it behooves countries to keep the peace, as well as to encourage their neighbors’ peace. This includes investing in key sectors which contribute to tourism, which also happen to be indicators of stable peace: establishing and maintaining good road and electrical infrastructure, providing good primary and secondary education to guarantee high adult literacy rates, good governance, rule of law, low corruption, low hostility towards foreigners and decent health care. With global tourism providing 1 in 11 jobs, accounting for 9% of global GDP and 3% to 4% projected annual growth, this is clearly a revenue stream that countries should focus on developing.
Tourists, however, should also do their due diligence and not lump entire regions or continents together. After all, mainstream media focuses on the most dire situations, otherwise they don’t consider it news. But the internet offers intrepid explorers the ability to do extensive research on destinations, get recommendations from people who have recently been there and even connect with other travelers. If we can travel around southern Africa with a baby, then I’m sure you can find a new destination that provides the kind of holiday you’re looking for.