Is tourism the answer to rebuilding Africa’s aviation industry?

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As global air travel positions to outperform 2019 levels, there is a surge in initiatives across Africa’s aviation industry to improve domestic and international air connectivity and increase air traffic within Africa and between Africa and neighboring regions. 

The trends emerging in pursuit of this focus, while being implemented on a state-by-state basis, reveal a strong correlation between Africa’s air travel recovery and growth, and tourism in and out of the continent.   

These trends can be classified under three main areas: 

  • African states respond to international tourism demand with initiatives to improve tourism channels. 
  • Increasing Foreign-Direct Investments (FDI) and Public-Private-Partnerships (PPP) in Africa’s aviation sector. 
  • African airlines restructure to adopt operating models better suited to their regions traffic. 

The airspaces of African countries have often been modelled with little consideration to neighboring regions and their traffic patterns. The outcome has been a fragmented airspace with policies that limit the free movement of air travel passengers from country to country. 

Despite these limitations, tourism has, for a significant part of three decades, played a key role in driving air traffic to, from and within Africa.  

Tourism and aviation in Africa – two sides of the same coin  

Tourism, according to the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), is a social, cultural, and economic phenomenon that involves people traveling to countries or places outside of their usual environment for personal or business reasons. These people are known as visitors (tourists or excursionists; residents or non-residents), and tourism refers to their activities, some of which involve tourism expenditure. 

In 2021, a United Nations Conference on Trade and Development report estimated that losses to Africa’s tourism sectors because of the Covid-19 pandemic were between US$170 billion and US$253 billion. Projections further revealed that travel to Africa would return to pre-pandemic levels between 2023 and 2024. 

However, as of early 2022, international tourist arrivals in Africa have more than doubled compared to 2021. Data from the UNWTO World Tourism Barometer shows that between January 2022 and July 2022, Africa recorded 171% growth in international tourist arrivals compared to the same period in 2021. 

International tourist arrivals in Africa are comprised of two passenger categories: 

  1. Passengers travelling to an African country originating from a country outside Africa. 
  2. Passengers travelling to an African country from an African country that is not their origin destination. 

Today, international tourist arrival levels in Africa are at about 60% of 2019 levels (more than 30 million international tourist arrivals).  

The impact of international tourist arrivals is further highlighted when measuring the recovery of Africa’s air connectivity with neighboring regions outside Africa. 

From the perspective of a passenger, air connectivity refers to the ability to seamlessly travel by air from point A to point B in the shortest amount of time; from the perspective of cargo operators, it refers to the most efficient routes to deliver freight quickly and efficiently from point A to point B; and from the perspective of airports, it is helpful in determining the worth of individual air connections. 

In May 2022, International Air Transport Association (IATA) revealed that air connectivity between Africa and the Middle East (106%), and Africa and North America (102%) had exceeded May 2019 levels, while Africa’s air connectivity with Europe in May 2022 stood at 96% of May 2019 levels. 

Africa’s air connectivity with regions outside the continent outpaced domestic air connectivity within African countries, which stood at 99% of May 2019 levels, and even more so for air connectivity between African countries which lagged at 77% of May 2019 levels. 

Despite this regional connectivity lag, activity across Africa’s aviation industry is shifting towards tourism development and the realization of the services and infrastructure required to meet this demand. The sector’s approach to tourism is mapping out the capacities, strategies and infrastructure being deployed across the continent which will influence Africa’s aviation industry over the next two decades. 

But how is the African continent responding and where does tourism and its development fit in? 

Where does Africa’s tourism traffic come from and where does it go in Africa? 

The passenger traffic arising from tourism in Africa plays a crucial part in mapping Africa’s air travel patterns. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the air transport trend in Africa showed consistent growth in the number of passengers carried within and across African countries per year. 

Between 2000 and 2019, data suggests that the number of passengers carried through air transport services in Sub-Saharan Africa grew from about 18 million passengers to more than 66 million passengers, nearly quadrupling in the space of two decades.  

Similarly, data sourced from the World Tourism Organization highlights a near identical pattern revealing that the number of international arrivals to Sub-Saharan Africa grew from about 14 million in 1995 to over 56 million in 2019. 

The final destination of international tourist arrivals in Africa can be categorized into two main subgroups. Tourists arriving to Northern Africa (Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Sudan, Tunisia, Western Sahara), and tourists arriving to sub-Saharan Africa (African countries below Northern Africa). 


Source: International tourist arrivals in Africa from the world and from within Africa, 2010-2013


In Northern Africa, estimates show that two out of 10 international tourists originate from within Africa, while in Sub-Saharan Africa two out of three international tourists originate from within Africa. A UNCTAD study shows that between 2010–2013, about four out of 10 international tourists who traveled to Africa originated from within Africa. 

Vice versa, eight out of 10 international tourists in Northern Africa, one out of three international tourists in sub-Saharan Africa, and six out of 10 international tourist arrivals to Africa as a whole originate from outside Africa. 

In 2016, 27 million out of 58 million arrivals to African destinations originated from source markets within the region (neighboring African countries).  

By 2030, the UNWTO estimates that the number of annual tourist arrivals to Africa will grow to about 134 million. 


Source: Airbus “The Great Enabler”, Economic Development in Africa Report 2017

Why international passengers and tourists are important to African countries 

Africa’s tourism industry and its tourism products are predominantly structured and designed for international tourists from outside Africa This aggregates numerous social and economic benefits across Africa and individually to African states. 

Between 1995 and 1998, tourism contributed a gross domestic product (GDP) of $69 billion (6.8%) across Africa. This rose to $166 billion (8.5%) contributed between 2011 and 2014, which generated more than 21 million jobs (one out of 14 jobs in Africa) estimated to be about 7.1% of total employment at the time.  


The World Travel and Tourism Council projects that travel and tourism will contribute up to $121.6 billion to Africa’s GDP by 2026, earning $77.6 billion in exports and directly supporting over 11 million jobs.  

With the needle pointing towards more tourism in Africa, how is Africa’s aviation sector responding to the current demand? 


Source: Economic Development in Africa Report 2017

African states warm up to foreign investment and public-private partnerships to develop tourism and airport infrastructure  

African governments are turning to concession contracts to mass the resources required to upgrade and develop their battered airport infrastructure. 

Concession contracts are instruments used to deliver services or construct infrastructure. They involve a contractual agreement between a public authority and an economic operator (concession holder) whereby the concession holder provides services or carries out work and is renumerated by being permitted to exploit the work or service.   

Republic of Cabo Verde 

In July 2022, the Republic of Cabo Verde (Cape Verde), situated off the coast of West Africa signed a 40-year concession contract with VINCI Airports (French company), which will be responsible for financing, operating, maintaining, extending and upgrading seven airports in the Cape Verde archipelago from mid-2023. 

The contract covers four international airports (the capital city Praia, Sal, São Vicente and Boa Vista) and three domestic airports (São Nicolau, São Filipe and Maio). The deal, the first of its kind for Cape Verde, aims to boost Cape Verde’s economic growth and expand its tourism industry. 

Estimated to have a population of more than 500,000 people, Cape Verde has a thriving tourism sector. Between 2010 and 2019, air traffic rose by an average of 5.6% each year and the country recorded passenger numbers reaching 2.8 million. 

Cape Verde’s tourism traffic reached 80% of 2019 levels in the second quarter of 2022. 


In October 2022, Nigeria’s government announced its preferred bidders for three out of four airports and cargo terminals approved for concession under the Nigeria Airports Concession Programme (NACP). 

Corporacion America Airports Consortium was selected as the preferred bidder for the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport (NAIA) in Abuja and Mallam Aminu Kano International Airport (MAKIA) in Kano. ENL Consortium was announced as the reserve bidder for NAIA while MAKIA has no reserve bidders  

The TAV/NAHCO/Project Planet Limited(PPL) consortium was announced as the selected bidder for Murtala Mohammed International Airport (MMIA) in Lagos with Sifax/Changi Consortium as the reserve bidder. 

No preferred or reserve bidders were announced for Port Harcourt International Airport (PHIA) in Port Harcourt.  

In August 2022, Nigeria and Israel finalized an agreement to commence regular direct flights between the two countries which will see both nations realize mutual benefits.  

Nigeria is Africa’s most populated country with over 200 million people. It is estimated that up to 50% of Nigeria’s population is constituted to be ‘Christians’ by ethnicity. Israel is well known as an attractive destination for pilgrims, due to its holy sites and landmarks which hold significance to various religions.  

This becomes an attractive arrangement for both countries as pilgrims from Nigeria can travel to Israel while stimulating air travel and new air connectivity points for Nigeria. 

In October 2022, the Nigerian Federal Government approved the construction of a new airport facility in the Lekki-Epe region, which is set to begin in 2023. 

While issues such as the strategy and funding of the airport are still to be ironed out, the airport will be built on 3,500 hectares of land and is estimated to serve a minimum of five million people per year. 


In December 2019, Qatar Airways purchased a 60% stake in Bugesera International Airport, a new airport under construction in Rwanda’s capital Kigali and in February 2020, Qatar Airways also announced its partnership with RwandAir after revealing plans to acquire a 49% stake in the Kigali-based airline. 

The joint venture regarding Bugesera International Airport plays to the benefit of Qatar Airways, RwandAir and Rwanda. The airport, whose first phase is expected to be complete between 2024 and 2025, looks to run at an annual capacity of seven million passengers, which supports plans to transport Rwanda into a transport hub. Plans for the airport will include developing hotels, housing and entertainment center infrastructure. 

Republic of Sierra Leone 

In June 2022, the government of the Republic of Sierra Leone signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Xejet Limited (Nigerian Airline) and for the airline to operate regional and international flights for the West African nation, using Lungi International Airport, Freetown as a hub.  

Xejet will operate regional and international flights for Sierra Leone with a core sign designating it as a national carrier when it is operating from the West African country, guaranteeing it a passenger market.  

Today, Sierra Leone has a population of over 8 million people. 

Firming partnerships with non-African airlines to increase international tourist arrivals 

Emirates Airlines  

In October 2022, the Mauritian Government approved Emirates’ plans to increase its frequency to Mauritius to three daily flights, starting October 1, 2022. This closely followed the airline’s re-introduction of double-daily flights to the East African nation. 

The gulf carrier’s plans aim to boost connectivity to the island nation in response to increased travel demand to and from Mauritius. This also includes supporting the government’s target of attracting 1.4 million tourists by June 2023.  

In early 2022, Emirates signed a MoU with the South African Tourism Board to promote connectivity and tourism to South Africa as part of the country’s economic and tourism recovery. 

Emirates firmed its commitment to this deal by announcing that it will expand its services to three South African destinations – with two daily services to Durban from December 1, 2022, three daily services to Johannesburg from March 1, 2023, and two daily services to Cape Town from February 1, 2023. 

Etihad Airways 

From November 26, 2022, Etihad Airways will add a fourth weekly flight on its Abu Dhabi – Zanzibar route primarily for the Northern winter 2022/23 season. The route is becoming more popular as travelers from Europe (Austria, Germany, Switzerland, France, and Italy) connect through Abu Dhabi onto Zanzibar.  

How are African Airlines responding to tourism and connectivity demand?  

Air Tanzania 

In August 2022, Air Tanzania, the flag carrier of Tanzania, revealed plans to open new routes in 2023 to West and Central Africa. The airline will commence flights to Goma, Nigeria, Kinshasa N’Djili, Democratic Republic of Congo as well as direct services to London, United Kingdom. 

With these new routes, Air Tanzania is aiming to transform Dar es Salaam into a transport and logistics hub in East Africa and attract more passengers who will use the airline to connect to destinations in Europe. Air Tanzania will spend TZS468 billion shillings (USD201 million) to expand its fleet with two B737-9s and one B787-8 expected to be delivered in early 2023. The airline will also acquire two DHC-8-Q400 turboprops and one B767-300F. 

Air Côte d’Ivoire 

In October 2022, Air Côte d’Ivoire, the national airline of the Republic of Côte d’Ivoire, firmed an order for two A330neo aircraft to support its plans to grow its network and efficiently launch long haul routes in view of its transcontinental expansion strategy. 

The pair of A330neos will be the first of their kind in Air Côte d’Ivoire’s fleet, which currently consists of six Airbus aircraft comprising one A320neo, two A320ceo and three A319, plus four De Havilland Q400 Dash 8s.   

Kenya Airways

In response to increased demand on its route between Nairobi – London route, Kenya Airways announced in late October 2022, that it was increasing its flight frequency to eleven weekly flights for the winter season, up from eight weekly flights which the airline operated during June 2022 and July 2022.

Similarly, Kenya Airways also upped its frequencies on its regional and international routes during the summer season, primarily on its services to Paris, Amsterdam and Accra. Additionally, Kenya Airways’ recent codeshare agreement with Delta Airlines (DAL) allows its passengers to connect from Nairobi to New York via Accra.

Ethiopian Airlines 

In June 2022, Ethiopian Airlines (EA), commenced three weekly passenger services to Washington DC via Lomé, Togo (a new connecting route). In July 2022, EA commenced three weekly operations to Chennai, India, its fourth destination in India after New Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru, and, in September 2022, EA commenced its first passenger services to Amman, Jordan

Alongside its route network expansion, EA became Africa’s first customer for the A350-1000 aircraft in July 2022 and the airline also opened its second five-star hotel, the ‘Ethiopian Skylight In-Terminal Hotel’ located inside the Bole International Airport (Terminal 02) which targets transit passengers. Three years prior, EA opened its first five-star hotel in 2019 called ‘Ethiopian Skylight Five Hotel’ to help boost the tourism sector in Addis Ababa. 


Royal Air Maroc 

In June 2022, Royal Air Maroc signed a three-year agreement with the Moroccan Tourism Office (ONMT) to support and boost Morocco’s tourism industry and promote Morocco as a key travel destination around the world. 

Also, ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup being hosted in Qatar between November 20, 2022 and December 18, 2022, Royal Air Maroc announced (in September 2022) the option for fans to gain access to subsidized flight tickets to Doha, Qatar from November 20 to December 4.   

It is estimated that up to 1.2 million World Cup fans will be hosted in Qatar between November 20 and December 18. 

TAAG Angola Airlines 

In August 2022, TAAG Angola Airlines announced that it will expand its domestic and international services by increasing its frequencies to Cabinda (Angola), Maputo (Mozambique), Windhoek (Namibia) and São Paulo (Brazil). 

From November 2022, TAAG will also expand its regional operations with two new routes. After a 15-year halt, the airline will restore service to Accra, Ghana and will also add a service to Durban, South Africa. 

South African Airways 

South African Airways (SAA) plans to bolster its international operations and hub strategy with long-haul services from Johannesburg (JNB) and Cape Town (CPT). From March 2023, the airline is considering services from Cape Town to New York, United States, São Paulo, Brazil, and at least one Australian city (Sydney and/or Perth), and from Johannesburg services to Perth and Washington – Dulles via Accra Ghana.  


In October 2022, FlySafair, a South Africa-based airline, received approval from the Air Services Licensing Council of South Africa (ASLC) to operate flights to 11 new destinations within Southern Africa. 

With a fleet of 25 aircraft, primarily Boeing 737-800s, it is set to operate flights from Johannesburg and Cape Town to Gaborone, Livingstone, Luanda, Lusaka, Maputo, and Victoria Falls. The airline was also approved to operate services from Johannesburg to Bulawayo, Nairobi and the Seychelles, as well as from Cape Town and Windhoek. 

The airline is also waiting to receive approval to operate between Johannesburg and Harare, Windhoek and Zanzibar as well as increased frequencies to Mauritius. 

Today, FlySafair primarily operates services to destinations across South Africa, namely Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, East London, Port Elizabeth, George, and Bloemfontein. 

Consolidation demand and African startup airlines 

Air Sphinx launch 

Egypt is preparing to launch a new low-cost airline, Air Sphinx, in the winter of 2022-2023 with the aim of stimulating the incoming tourism movement to Egypt.  

The airline will be a subsidiary of EgyptAir, Egypt’s national carrier, and will operate from its base at Sphinx Airport in Giza, as well as from the airports of Hurghada, Sharm El Sheikh, Luxor, Sphinx and Cairo.  

Air Arabia Sudan launch 

In September 2022, Sudanese conglomerate DAL Group and Air Arabia announced plans to launch Air Arabia Sudan, a joint venture that will be based at Khartoum International Airport.  

The airline, which is expected to operate a fleet of new Airbus A320s, will adopt the low-cost business model operated by Air Arabia Group. Plans for the airline aim to develop Sudan’s air transport sector and directly contribute to the growth of the local economy and the development of the travel and tourism sector.  

Nigeria Air – Ethiopian Airlines  

In September 2022, Nigeria’s Federal Government announced Ethiopian Airlines (ET) Consortium as one of the main investors to partner with the government to launch its new flag carrier – Nigeria Air.  

Ethiopian Airlines will control 49% of the shares in the new airline, while three Nigerian investors – MRS, SAHCO and the Nigerian Sovereign Fund – will control 46% with the Nigerian Federal Government controlling the remaining 5%.  

Nigeria Air expects to launch by the end of 2022 with services between Lagos and Abuja, and within two years expects to operate a fleet of 30 aircraft, through the backing of Ethiopian Airlines. 

Airlink acquires 40% shares in FlyNamibia, continues network expansion 

In September 2022, Johannesburg-based airline Airlink acquired 40% of privately-owned Windhoek-based FlyNamibia, further strengthening its network expansion.  

The deal aims to accelerate Namibia’s post-pandemic recovery and drive the expansion of efficient scheduled airline services to, from and within Namibia. The plans also include enhancing Namibia’s competitive position as a destination for trade and tourism. 

Airlink also partnered with Federal Airlines, an air service provider flying shuttles out to African Safari Lodges, in a commercial agreement to link key Lowveld airports in SA to commercial game lodges.  

Airlink operates a business model that feeds inbound passenger traffic in South Africa to smaller hub airports as well as some larger airports.   

In recent years, Airlink has garnered multiple codeshare partnerships and interline agreements with the likes of Emirates, Ethiopian Airlines, British Airways, Air Belgium, KLM, Qatar Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Air France, Delta, United Airlines, Lufthansa Airlines, LAM Mozambique Airlines and TAAG Angola Airlines.   

Discover more insight into African aviation, through AeroTime’s media partnership with AviaDev Africa
AviaDev Insight is the first podcast dedicated to the African aviation industry, created by Jon Howell, Founder and Managing Director of AviaDev Africa, Africa’s premier event dedicated to developing air connectivity.
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