Why technology is challenging the way we measure tourism in Africa

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I’ve just arrived in Lesotho to help improve the accuracy of tourist arrivals statistics.  Like most other countries in Africa, there is considerable cross-border traffic in Lesotho, a country that is completely surrounded by South Africa.

Consequently the main problems faced when measuring tourist arrivals is identifying who they are (we need to exclude regular border crossers and returning residents), and also dealing with the sheer volume of people arriving at the border posts.

This latter point is usually the deal breaker when trying to accurately measure tourist arrivals in African countries.  For each arrival (and there can be hundreds of thousands each year) we need, at the very least, to capture their country of residence and purpose of visit – two attributes that are essential for measuring and understanding tourism, and two attributes that are not coded into the traveller’s passport.

Here lies the root of the problem – computerisation of border posts in African countries is starting to become more commonplace, and to speed things up, some countries have implemented a system whereby immigration officials scan the traveller’s passport, stamp it, and then grant entry (assuming all is in order) to the person.

South Africa is a good example of this – when you arrive at a border post in South Africa, no one asks your purpose of visit or country of residence, and therefore in the absence of a large sample passenger survey (such as those undertaken in European countries to measure tourism, due to the open borders prevalent across most of the continent) it is not possible to measure tourism accurately.

Here in Lesotho, our goal is to ensure that immigration officials at the border posts not only electronically capture some useful data that is encoded into the passport of each traveller (age, gender and nationality), but also to ask each arrival what their purpose of visit, country of residence and intended length of stay is, so that these three pieces of data can be added to the record stored on the computer.

If that can be achieved, then the computerisation of border posts can be a very positive change.  It means that data are available almost immediately, and information on the number of tourists, where they come from and what they are doing, is much more useful.

Here in Lesotho (thanks to the World Bank Private Sector Competitiveness Project) we are going to load this information into an online database that will, through a web interface, enable the sharing of these statistics so that they can be accessed by hotels, attractions, and potential investors, as well as the government for planning, marketing and monitoring the sector.

And that should make a big difference.

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