Keith Bohannon: Africa’s hidden gem is full of surprises

Malawi has a lot to offer the tourist who fancies a more adventurous break. Picture: Contributed

Malawi has a lot to offer the tourist who fancies a more adventurous break. Picture: Contributed

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TOURISM can have a positive influence on economic and social development in Malawi, writes Keith Bohannon

Recent research suggests some 46 per cent of Scots have a friend or family member with a connection to Malawi and increasing numbers of Scots are now choosing to holiday in this small but charming African country. VisitScotland recently welcomed a tourism delegation from Malawi here to discuss plans to develop their country’s tourism sector. Keith Bohannon, from the Scotland Malawi Partnership, reflects on his experience as a tourist in Malawi and the positive influence tourism can have on the economic and social development of the country.

As the crimson African sun sinks below the horizon I find myself perched on a white sandy beach, sipping a world-famous Malawian gin and tonic and asking myself if life can really get much better than this. I spent yesterday hiking across part of the majestic Nyika Plateau and along the way added zebra and elephant to my list of wildlife encounters. Malawi truly lives up to its fast growing reputation as Africa’s hidden gem. Indeed it offers everything a visitor to Africa could ask for – accessible, indigenous wildlife, breath-taking scenery, unspoilt beaches and a vibrant and welcoming culture.

So have I missed something? Where are all the other tourists? Well, if the statistics are anything to go by, they’re off wine tasting in Cape Town or in a convoy of Toyotas queuing to spot a lion on the Serengeti.

Malawi’s tourism industry by comparison is an emerging one, lacking the profile of South Africa and Kenya. But as I sit here enjoying the fact that I have this amazing beach to myself it occurs to me that perhaps this is less a curse and more a blessing. Alongside its welcoming atmosphere (it’s not called the “Warm Heart of Africa” for nothing), the overriding feeling I have is that I am experiencing a more authentic Africa.

The fact that Malawi is a peaceful, stable, English-speaking country also means you can wander on to the road less travelled safe in the knowledge that when you get lost (and you probably will) there will be a friendly face there to point you back in the right direction.

In a country highly reliant of overseas aid and struggling to grow and diversify a limited, agri-based economy, tourism offers a much-needed source of economic development. Tourism currently accounts for approximately 5 per cent of Malawi’s GDP (interestingly, that is the same as in Scotland) but has the potential to grow to 8 per cent in just one year, providing thousands of Malawians with opportunities for sustainable livelihoods, particularly those living in rural areas.

For example, tour operator the Responsible Safari Company has set up an ecotourism initiative on the shores of the lake. The initiative is run by local boat builder Joseph, who was concerned about the development of his village, in particular the lack of opportunities for young people in terms of education and employment. It’s still early days but the initiative is already reaping the benefits of having a community of engaged and motivated young people, which is now supported and funded through regular visits from Scottish students.

In addition to economic and social benefits, tourism in Malawi also challenges some of the negative assumptions and stereotypes too often found in the mainstream media. This is a different vision of Africa; a dignified vision celebrating the vibrant culture, spectacular scenery and incredible natural resources. This vision has made Malawi the proud home of the internationally renowned Lake of Stars festival Festival which offers a truly unique experience of music, art and culture that attracts big names such as Scotland’s Mercury Prize winners Young Fathers.

So, if this dreich weather is getting you down, and you want to escape from the impending permafrost that we’ve been promised in 2016, my advice is get in touch with your adventurous side and book yourself a trip to Malawi. Have a holiday you’ll never forget and support the sustainable development of one of Scotland’s closest and oldest friends at the same time.

• Keith Bohannon is member services manager for the Scotland Malawi Partnership.

• For more on Malawian tourism please visit: www.malawitourism.com | http://lakeofstars.org/ | www.responsiblesafaricompany.com | www.scotland-malawipartnership.org/areas-of-partnership/tourism

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