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Tiny Benin looks to tourism to boost economy

BENIN: With its palm tree-lined beaches, unique heritage and wildlife parks, Benin can hold its own against the best African holiday destinations.

transport, tourism, culture,


AFP

Saturday 11 March 2017, 04:00PM


The museum at the small Beninese coastal town of Ouidah. Photo: Stefan Heunis/AFP
The museum at the small Beninese coastal town of Ouidah. Photo: Stefan Heunis/AFP

But tourism revenue accounts for just 0.7% of gross domestic product and there were only 240,000 visitors in 2014, according to World Bank figures.

That compares to an average of one million visitors a year in Senegal, which is one of the most popular destinations in West Africa.

Now Benin’s government wants to change the situation.

“We’ve got 200,000 people without doing anything. Imagine what we could do with a bit of effort? We could double that,” said the head of the national tourism agency, Jose Pliya.

The agency, which was set up several months ago, is the focus of President Patrice Talon’s new drive to boost tourist numbers and as a result the wider economy.

“Our aim between now and the end of (Talon’s) five-year term is to reach 700,000 tourists,” Pliya said.

Some 600 billion CFA francs (B33.95 billion) will be pumped into the sector over five years, notably through a World Bank loan.

In his small office in the former Portuguese fort of Ouidah, the head of the town’s museum, Bertin-Calixte Biah says it is an “unprecedented effort” and is happy that the state is finally putting in the money.

“We’ve got to take stock of our heritage, train guides, put in place a policy of cultural promotion... It costs a fortune,” he said.

Nevertheless, he said he was “waiting to see the pledges become a reality”.

Ouidah is a small town on the Atlantic coast and a former West African slave port to the New World. Under the government’s new plan, it will be the country’s tourist hub.

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The town has the same Portuguese colonial architecture as Salvador de Bahia in Brazil, but it is more worn.

Ouidah’s beaches, however, stretch for miles and there are villages dotted around the lagoon, colonial-era forts as well as a strong culture of the voodoo tradition.

It is also the home of sub-Saharan Africa’s first museum dedicated exclusively to contemporary African art.

Groups of Germans, Belgians, Italians and French come to Ouidah to take photos of themselves with pythons wrapped around their necks, unclear whether they should be terrified or enjoying it.

“Don’t worry,” says the guide. “They’re sacred. They won’t do you any harm!”

The head of the town’s tourist office, Modeste Zinsou, described the town as “a living museum”.

“Tourism has a direct economic impact on the population. It pays for hoteliers, but also villagers, canoe drivers and fishermen. The problem is that Benin is not very well known.”

One of the main problems facing Benin is getting there in the first place.

The government has in response lifted visa restrictions for citizens of 30 African countries to encourage business travel from across the continent.

“As a general rule Africans don’t do leisure tourism, which is a lot more Western,” said Pliya.

“Now our aim is change the situation, so those who are business travellers will spend a day or two at leisure. We want to create new tourists.”

 

 

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