Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Malawi Tourism Requires Mindset Overhaul

Sounding harsh, but in my own right, I consider myself well travelled and competent enough to talk about tourism business mediocrity in my country. An industry that has potential but is beset by our business as usual mindset, get rich quick-ponzi scheme mentality, horrible service delivery, disorganization and rampant overcharging. We need a huge overhaul in how we can develop this industry and appropriate potential gains.

Tobacco earnings have been falling for some years. Tourism has been touted as a potential money earner. The mining business at Kayelekera has become a talk amid cries of a not so impressive deal. Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan stepped in, closure of nuclear energy in Japan followed, European countries too are considering the same, and Germany has just shut down some nuclear reactors. Prices of Uranium have since gone down. We cant bank our hopes on a clandestinely negotiated Kayelekera 15% stake in the right of global downturn in uranium prices. We need to take our diversification seriously and walk the talk on tourism. The tune is now boring, if not monotonous. We are in a global world and events that happen elsewhere affect us.

Tourism remains a potential if we get things right. However, Malawi is not the only country in the world or SADC. Others countries are there and a potential tourist will surely weigh options. It might include service delivery, cost of services such as accommodation, health, general use of credit cards amongst others. Remember a tourist is not necessarily a rich person. Some are mere students that save for many years to travel the world. Don’t overcharge. But we love to overprice our stuff.

In Malawi we have a whole ministry of tourism, proof that we take this industry seriously, at-least on paper. If I may ask how many people know about Malawi out there? You would be amazed at how little is known about this country. Sometimes, I am at pains to explain that we are surrounded by Tanzania, Zambia and Mozambique, which apparently are better known. Is it because we are a “God” fearing country? Others know Malawi as “that country where pop star Madonna adopted David and Mercy”. Comical indeed. But what does the ministry of tourism do? Take local journalists in their 32 seater bus around the country visiting doggy night clubs? Is that what you call tourism promotion and how you sell your country? Or is it the obsession to collect the so called tourism marketing levy and justify such tours? Even journalists are tired of these trips.

You will be amazed at how other countries use international cable television to market their destinations. Ever heard of “remarkable Indonesia, incredible India, the South African Shabeen queen, Malaysia truly Asia slogans” on CNN? I last saw a documentary on National Geographic Channel on Malawi, unfortunately it was showcasing how Marijuana is grown in the Northern Highlands.. Why not sub-contract to an international marketing company if we can’t do it? There are lots of international travel companies such as Expedia, Flight Centre and many more. Our embassy staff are busy welcoming visiting politicians or those connected to the regime at any point, and cannot be entrusted with marketing our country. In earnest.
For instance where are tourism offices? Ministry head quarters at city center and the regional office in Blantyre. Not sure whether there is another one in Mzuzu. And the usually unmamaned desks at KIA. If for instance I visit Mangochi, I need to find a tourist office that has information about all I can see in Mangochi and surrounding areas. There is none. If I visit Karonga, there ought to be a tourism office there fully equipped to inform me of things to do in Karonga. Its not enough to say we have a lake and overpriced hotels along the shores of Lake Malawi. Google does not have all solutions.

Do we really have an idea what tourists want and therefore market the country accordingly? I don’t need to talk about Malawi embassies. The story is not new. They have outdated websites and there is little information for any prospective visitor apart from a list of countries that are visa exempt or link to an out-dated MIPA website. Check the Ministry of Tourism website. It has the name of the minister, their plan and mandate or objectives something like. Who really cares about these things? A would be visitor doesn’t require such information but what Malawi has to offer, and it has to be up to date.

Then there is the private sector whose mannerism is as outdated as 1616 Jasper Boccaro. When you visit a hotel, restaurant or any other place of interest, you are often treated as a bother. The service delivery seems to be reserved for a privileged few. In most cases, it is considered a privilege to partake in some of the services yet one is paying his or her own money. Customer service in this country is a new thing and we are too bossy,yet we expect someone to pay for the services. If you have flown Africa’s Most Friendly Airline on a number of occasions you probably know what I am talking about. Cases of cabin crew shouting at passengers in disrespect for simply asking an extra pint of an over-diluted glass of Sobo. You do that to a client, and if they were foreigner, and you expect them to come to this country? “God fearing or Satan trodden” nation. In their sedated state presumably. I doubt.

And the ponzi get rich quick scheme of Malawian businesses. Why would one pay US100 a day for renting a car? This not a flat rate, but add charges per kilometer and daily insurance. And then factor in USD300/night Hotel room. Then a USD50 lunch per person in our hotels. This very beef from Chikwawa or cows that have walked hundreds of kilometers from Mzimba, or mudfish (kampango) from Lake Malawi really? We probably need to know that being a tourist does not necessary mean one is stinking rich or they have won a mega Euro lottery. Most of the blokes that come to visit are just average guys that have worked so hard, saved to travel. But our businesses are so obsessed with making quick bucks from potential tourists thinking they are madly dollar endowed.

We need to understand that other countries are better off than us and offer reasonably priced packages. There is more and much better out there and reasonably priced. A tourist would rather go to Mauritius, Zanzibar, Kenya, South Africa, Namibia or Zambia, where services are reasonably priced but of relatively good quality. Not the screaming front office personnel, neither red eyed angry waitresses or bossy hotel managers, loan-shark minded car rental operators. There is no need to revisit the theory of demand and its determinants. But for the sake of rookies, I will say price and quality of service go hand in hand to attract a potential tourist to this “God fearing country”. We cant always blame “Mose wa Lero (RIP). He found this and left as it is.

To colleagues in the Ministry of Tourism (including the Minister) and various umbrella organization like Tourism Association of Malawi I have some questions. What have you done in the last 2 years to market Malawi as a destination for tourism? What media of marketing Malawi did you use? Why should a tourist come to Malawi and not other countries in the region? Why don’t we have tourist information centres across all the districts and main border posts? This is how you do it.

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