For many, Africa is a land of mystery, steeped in the legendary adventurous stories of Hemmingway and Conrad, and populated by characters such as Livingston and Stanley.
This attitude has, in many ways, permeated the international hotel industry's attempts to penetrate the multitude of local markets available across the continent, with many countries featuring only a handful of internationally recognised branded properties.
With the exception of Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, and South Africa, the rest of the African continent is at the emerging market stage.
But this is starting to change, with many companies now turning their attention to the "forgotten continent" as it's resource boom continues and areas of political instability settle down.
State of play
Africa has strong and developed hotel markets book-ending the continent to the north and south.
As InterContinental Hotel Group vice president development Middle East and Africa Phil Kasselis explains, "with the exception of Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, and South Africa, the rest of the African continent is at the emerging market stage".
"The internationally branded hotel market is in a stage of infancy, as evidenced by the small number of international operators in many African countries," he says.
"However, if you follow the resource belt and various oil deposits, there are plenty of opportunities in Africa."
Protea Hotels Africa regional director Bernard Cassar agrees.
"If you look at the continent of Africa, you have your traditional markets, which are Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt, purely because of their proximity to the Mediterranean and Europe," he adds.
"Kenya is a market that used to be very lucrative, but it went through a terrible depression. It is now coming out the other side, and we just got involved with a five-star hotel in Nairobi which we are about to open in the next two to three weeks - the Kenyan market is on the revival."
Mövenpick Hotels and Resorts Africa branding and marketing communications manager Gehan Moustafa says the company's resort property Mövenpick Resort and Spa El Gouna achieves the best results each year in the company's North African portfolio.
"[It's] because of the location of the property, as it is located in one of the most elegant areas of the Red Sea El Gouna," she says.
"The property itself, is also very spacious and special, with a unique architectural design and outstanding level of services and facilities."
In South Africa the level of involvement by international hotel companies is more pronounced, particularly in the large urban centres of Johannesburg and Cape Town which already include properties from InterContinental, Hyatt, Hilton, Best Western and Starwood and boast sophisticated markets.
While African hotels receive many bookings from intra-regional guests, it is still proving an attraction for international guests.
Fairmont director of transition Sean Billing says the company's new Kenya-based properties were drawing interest from the United States, Europe - including the UK, Italy, France and Germany - and the Middle East.
"We are also seeing increased travel from India, China, Russia and the Middle East, and feel that the company's global presence bodes very well for its future," he explains.
"Kenya is known as an exotic destination and statistics indicate that travellers are looking for more adventurous areas to spend their holidays. It is also expected that Kenya will move into the top ten position as a long distance destination. Other key trends emerging in the tourism sector include an increased average stay from 13 days to 14.5 days.
"Kenya is a country that is attracting savvy travellers who are looking for unique, distinctive experiences to commemorate important milestones, and the Fairmont East Africa collection can certainly deliver on that."
Protea's Cassar says that guests staying in the company's Nigeria properties are predominantly corporate, driven by the country's booming oil and IT sectors.
"We are primarily in the corporate market, where we are dealing with intra-regional corporate tourism, South African corporate tourism and international corporate tourism," he says.
"There is very little intra-regional leisure and international leisure, as perception is stronger than reality and Nigeria's perception hasn't been all that great over a number of years.
"On a resort basis we have one or two properties, and they primarily cater for Nigerian leisure tourism as well as expatriate leisure tourism."
Moustafa says the source markets depended largely on the destinations, with Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Mauritius drawing largely European leisure tourists, while cities such as Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania were driven mainly by corporate demand.
Entering the heart of darkness
Protea's Cassar dramatically describes some of his company's portfolio expansion as "going where no man dares to tread", but the reality is that there are many markets ripe for expansion.
IHG's Kasselis identifies strong markets in the sub-Sahara as being Nigeria, Angola, South Africa, Kenya, and Ghana.
"While there are a number of other major cities where strong demand for accommodation exists, we feel that they will emerge as go-to destinations in a few years," he says. "Besides established tourist destinations, growth is built on resources such as oil, diamonds and other commodities driving business activity and demand for hotel accommodation.
"What is evident in a lot of these markets is that there are very few internationally branded properties, and the existing hotel stock is generating very high room rates. For example, a basic hotel room in Lagos or Luanda (Angola) will cost in excess of US $300 per night. Supply is short, demand is strong, and a lot of local operators are charging very high rates for what is in most cases a very mediocre product.
"IHG is going into some of these places with the pioneering spirit upon which InterContinental evolved many years ago when it was one of the first truly international hotel brands to enter the African continent."
Kasselis notes that South Africa "will be a big market for IHG".
"Demand for accommodation has been driven mainly by the robust South African economy which has strengthened as a result of the boom in resources and commodities," he explains.
"Coupled with strong inbound tourism and the soccer World Cup in 2010, the future looks bright for this market. We are looking at expanding all of our brands in South Africa with huge opportunities to grow the number of Holiday Inn and Express by Holiday Inn hotels. Just recently we opened the Holiday Inn in Soweto and are honoured to be the first international hotel company to contribute to the development of this thriving and historically important region.
"We are also working with a number of local companies which embrace the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) policy developed by the South African government. These companies have a strong appetite for hotel development given the favourable economic and employment impact generated by new hotel construction.
"In South Africa our focus is on growing our presence within the growth corridor spanning greater Johannesburg and Pretoria with Cape Town also being a top priority particularly in seeking an InterContinental presence."
Libya, Ethiopia, Morocco and Mauritius have also been slated for future IHG expansion across a range of brands, according to Kasselis.
Cassar nominates countries such as Angola, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of Congo and Cameroon as opportunities to expand Protea's presence, which already exists in 11 countries on the African continent.
"Those are the prime areas at the moment, however we continue to be opportunistically driven," he adds.
"Because we are the leading regional player, we have a lot to offer countries not only to enhance their local corporate tourism with a decent facility, but also with the ability to attract intra-regional and then international tourism."
Mövenpick's Moustafa says the Swiss-company has aggressive plans in all Africa, with opportunities in Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and Algeria being pursued.
Money, money, money
Speaking at the Arabian Hotel Investment Conference in Dubai earlier this year, Kingdom Hotel Investments chief executive Sarmad Zok identified Africa as a key market for hotel investment, and it seems many other Middle East-based investors share the same view.
Moustafa says the company sees a lot of investor interest from Kuwait, UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia for Africa-based properties.
According to Kasselis, while investment in some countries such as South Africa and Nigeria is largely locally driven, money is flowing from the Middle East and GCC developers to developments in Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt.
"This is good news for Africa, as a lot of Middle Eastern property developers are exporting their knowledge in master planning and property development know-how," he explains.
"This includes groups such as Emaar, Aldar, Damac and Orascom who are involved in developments in Egypt, Morocco and elsewhere.
"Another factor driving the tourism infrastructure development in the Maghreb and Egypt are real estate prices in Europe, where destinations such as the Costa Del Sol in southern Spain no longer provide comparative value for money compared to places like Egypt and Morocco where, thanks to low cost carriers, investors can access their holiday homes without breaking the bank."
The long and winding road
While hoteliers remain optimistic about the future of many African destinations, there still remains some hesitations about particular countries due to negative perceptions, political instability and foreign exchange constraints.
"IHG will only look at markets where we can assure the safety and security of our guests - that is a prime consideration for us," Kasselis says.
"Furthermore, we will only enter new markets where our company values are aligned with those of our potential owners.
"We won't go into areas where we think there may be insufficient demand for hotel accommodation. Although IHG is the world's biggest hotel operator by number of rooms, we're not about putting flags on a map.
In my view, it is pointless establishing for example, a 150-room Holiday Inn in the middle of nowhere if we're unable to provide the right support to ensure our owner achieves a good return on investment. This is one of the reasons why we tend to focus on major capital cities, key gateways, and established destinations."
Protea's Cassar says that whenever considering expansion into a new country, the company "needs to look at it very carefully, [because] Africa is every changing".
"We have always had the view that we go where no man dares to tread," he continues.
"I think if one has a pioneering nature then one goes in, but always with a long term view."
However, much like the old adage of fortune favouring the brave, Protea has reaped the rewards of this policy, according to Cassar.
"I think Protea's success has been to take a long term view rather than starting to climb into the market at the crest of a wave," he says.
"We have been in Nigeria since the elections nearly 10 years ago, when no one dared to tread. Now you have multi-nationals trying to get into the market place where we are incredibly well positioned, because we dared back in those days."
According to Kasselis, there are still some barriers to consider before a company expands its portfolio into new African destinations.
"Corruption, political instability, the difficulty of doing business and accessing sites are major issues," he explains.
"However, the biggest challenge will be staffing, as unskilled labour is a big problem - only those companies with the infrastructure in place in these countries will be able to deliver the training platforms necessary to provide guests adequate levels of service.
There's no point in building an international class hotel in any country if you can't staff it to the appropriate standard, hence the strength a big global player like IHG can bring to the table.
"Another hurdle for hotel management companies are the tax and legal structures required in establishing a local operating entity. Besides the bureaucratic hurdles, there are substantial costs involved in doing this.
Frankly it might not be worthwhile for some of the smaller hotel companies to go through all this cost and hassle, particularly if their intention is to only operate one or two hotels in a specific country."
Billing agrees that for companies considering entering the market, "a location first has to make sense from a business model and sustainability viewpoint".
"In Kenya, we see our role as one of helping to encourage the destination, and as such we are encouraged by the investments that other hotel companies are undertaking as well," he says.
"An overall renewed focus on quality in the market will benefit all players, and ultimately, the guest. We will continue to look for similar opportunities in the region as they present themselves."
With such a wealth of natural resources and an increased focus of developers and investors alike, many hoteliers are extremely optimistic about the continent's future.
According to Moustafa: "the future is in Africa".
"The hotel industry will be booming in Africa in five years, as Africa offers a lot to travellers, from exotic beach resorts to safaris, in addition to great investments," she says, adding that the destinations to watch in coming years will be Morocco, Egypt and Libya.
The Fairmont's Billing is similarly optimistic: "Kenya is experiencing a real renaissance in tourism and hospitality and both the Kenya Tourism Bureau and the Kenya Wildlife Service are actively working to promote the region while still protecting the abundance of natural wonders that make Kenya such a magical destination".
"We see this continuation for its future and look forward to fully refurbished properties under the Fairmont banner including The Norfolk and Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club," he says.
"We also see ourselves as partners in this revitalisation, offering travellers who may have overlooked Kenya in the past a international luxury brand with a reputation for operating historic, landmark hotels.
"Also, today's travellers are consistently seeking new areas to explore and learn about. The luxury traveller of today travels regularly, often on long haul trips, so distance isn't the same barrier it was 15 years ago. As well, the baby boom generation in the west is keen to undertake enriching travel experiences, which makes this part of the world a very attractive destination for them."For all the latest travel news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.
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