Four_ThingsEver since the name “Barack Obama” was uttered as Americans were gearing up for the 2008 presidential elections, people have been not only curious about his political agenda, but also about his background and where he grew up. The Nobel Peace Prize-winning, yet–as some might say–controversial president has continued to intrigue people for many reasons.  He is the first African-American president. And although many African-Americans are in politics, what is more appealing in Obama’s case is that because his father comes directly from Africa, there is the implication that Obama is not a descendant of those Africans brought to America through the trans-Atlantic slave trade.  

Although this fact has sparked many dialogues, one interesting effect is that it has sparked a greater curiosity about Africa, not only among African-Americans but also among the general population. This cultural curiosity along with other factors like the World Cup in South Africa and the emerging African economy are leading more and more tourists into Africa. Increasingly, people are making their way to the continent of Africa, and thanks to this Obama curiosity many are heading to the country of Kenya, an essential link in Obama’s paternal lineage.

The Kenyan tourist board has sighted an increase in American tourists to the country since the rise of Obama. Tour companies like Kenya.com are even offering a “Barack Obama’s Kenya Roots” safari, an 8-day tour of the country which includes a visit to the Nyangoma Kogelo village, the birthplace of Obama’s father and home to Obama’s still-living paternal grandmother. Some sources cite a 20 percent increase in traffic throughout the whole East African region, whose major destinations also include Burundi, Rwanda, Seychelles, Ethiopia, and Tanzania.

The phenomenon is so marked, that it has been dubbed the “Obama Effect,” and the entire continent has seen an overall 5-percent increase in tourism. "Africa is now considered a very serious destination for travelers from the major generating markets," says Taleb Rifai, head of the UN Tourism Organization. While tourism to all other continents has decreased by 4 percent because of economic downturn, the swine-flu scare, and other travel worries, people have taken a keen interest in traveling to Africa.

This interest in Africa seems to be an economic and social triumph for a continent long portrayed by the media as impoverished, war-torn, disease-ridden, and generally unsafe, the result of which long left Africa considered a destination best left to anthropologists, missionaries, and only the bravest, hardiest adventurers—a far cry from comfortable, well-mapped, “safe” locations like Paris or Cancun.

According to Rifai, “there has been a shift in the way people look at Africa." For us Americans, part of the Obama Effect is that he seems to have put an “American face” on Africa, which helps to break stereotypical barriers, fears, and misconceptions of Africa, while sparking serious dialogue about and interest in the continent. People are no longer thinking of Africa in a typecast, National Geographic sort of way. Instead, they are acknowledging a vast number of ways to look at the continent.

The increase in tourism to Africa cannot only be a result of Obama and soccer. Rather, another phenomenon is also partly responsible. It’s called genealogical tourism, and as a sector of the tourism market, it is growing rather quickly. Instead of discovering Obama’s roots, people are seeking to connect with their own roots by traveling to locations where their ancestors once lived. Studies show that many African-Americans, being long ago cut off from any knowledge of their ancestry because of the slave trade, finally want to trace their roots; even first-lady Michelle Obama jumped on the trend. This quest for knowledge and heritage insights has taken many on a journey to what many Diaspora persons affectionately call the “Motherland.”

For African-Americans, genealogical tourism can have a great meaning: With such a fragmented history, which has been told by the dominant, often oppressive majority, visiting such places allows African-Americans to recognize themselves in such a way that is different from what we understand by blanket terms like American or even African-American. The trail to find ancestry usually starts in a library researching historical documents.

For many African-Americans, however, this trail usually grows cold at some point because of the difficulty in finding documentation on their enslaved ancestors, this owing to their status as property rather than legitimate persons. But because it is commonly held that most slaves came from coastal West Africa, many people skip the paper trail and head for the present-day nations of Senegal, Côte D’Ivoire, the Gambia, Ghana, Cameroon, and others. Such countries serve as destinations to which tourists hope to immerse themselves in the sights, smells, and sounds that once surrounded their ancestors. or even

Visiting a location where one’s ancestors once walked provides an escape from the banality of closed-in, sand and sun destinations while allowing a sense of connection to a culture that may have otherwise seemed foreign. In a philosophy article entitled “Genealogical Tourism: A Phenomenological Examination,” authors Carla Almeida Santos and Grace Yan describe the increase in genealogical tourism “as reflecting contemporary tourists’ call for diversity of leisure interests and opportunities as well as their desire for a full range of varying intimacies, intensities, and complexities in their tourism -lived experiences.

Yan and Santos add that “[ while many] have certainly developed a certain numbness and adaptation to the loss of individuality and social situatedness, genealogical tourism provides them with coping mechanisms to counteract feelings of being cut adrift.” Thus, genealogical tourism facilitates self-discovery, self-reflection, and cultural understanding in a way that cannot be achieved by the cultureless, fun-in-the-sun vacations.

And if one needs another reason to visit Africa, we can talk business; Africa has been named the world’s emerging market of the future by the Corporate Council on Africa, and its president and CEO, Stephen Hayes, said that Africa offers more opportunity than any place in the world. He describes the continent as “one of the last great emerging markets in the world, for anyone looking for new investments beyond extraction commodities.”

Guide books, resource manuals, and other publications dedicated to promoting direct trade between Africa and the rest of the world and to understanding and developing business models and framework for the African market are popping up all over the world. In an article in the online journal All Africa, economists Paul Collier and Witney Schneidman, who advised President Obama on Africa during his campaign, recently said that Africa now offers the world’s highest rate of return on investment.

In another recent article in Time magazine, writer Alex Perry said, “Perhaps the most compelling evidence that Africa is now a business destination is China's new love for it.” His article said that trade between Africa and China has grown an average of 30 percent in the past decade, topping $106 billion last year.  Across the continent, Chinese engineers are mining copper in Zambia, cobalt in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and tapping oil in Angola.

The article went on to say that the works are not merely exploitative because China has agreed to create a new infrastructure for Africa, building roads, railways, hospitals, and schools across the continent. Last January in South Africa, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said, “We will continue to have a vigorous aid program here, and Chinese companies will continue to invest as much as possible.” He went on to say that “It is a win-win solution."

Whether tourists’ desires to visit Africa have been stimulated by genealogical or cultural curiosity, sports, the Obama effect, or even just a much-needed change of scenery, they are going to Africa in record numbers. That’s good for everyone—business people and Africa’s emerging economy, sports and culture enthusiasts, and the tourist industry—specifically sustainable tourism as Africa is number one in this field. A by-product is that all types of tourism to Africa can serve to bridge ethnic and cultural gaps and help to bring the world together in fostering communication, peace, and understanding. Indubitably, Africa is destined to be one of the most visited places on earth.

Sources

1-Genealogical Tourism: A Phenomenological Examination Journal of Travel Research 2010; 49; 56 originally published online Feb 24, 2009; Carla Almeida Santos and Grace Yan.