There are definitely countries that are easier to market as tourist destinations than South Sudan. But South Sudan’s ambassador to Germany, Sitona Abdalla Osman, has taken up the challenge: “We have a lot of things to show tourists,” she told DW with a broad smile on her face at South Sudan’s stand at the International Tourism Fair (ITB) in Berlin.
“South Sudan: Undiscovered holiday destination,” reads a sign bearing the colors of South Sudan’s national flag: black, green, white and red. When asked what tourist attractions South Sudan has to offer, Ambassador Osman does not need to think long before replying. “There are not just animals, we have beautiful landscapes, we have agriculture, we have forests, we have the river Nile,” she said.
Her staff are handing out brochures with photos of a foaming river, colorful birds and a herdsman in traditional attire watching over his cows. A tourist paradies?
The brochures do not show the other side of life in South Sudan.
Government troops and rebels affiliated to former vice president Riek Machar have been engulfed in a civil war in the country since 2012. At least 50,000 people have been killed. Western nations have issued travel advisories warning their citizens against travelling to South Sudan.
But at the ITB, Ambassador Osman tried her best to counter the negative image of her country. “We’re going to have peace very soon,” she said. South Sudan, one of the poorest countries on earth, desperatly needs more tourist arrivals. “We have to diversify our economy. The tourism sector can give us employment, it can give us resources,” she told DW. But at the moment, this is still a distant dream.
At another booth at the ITB, just a few metres away, Fatoumata Ouattara, General Manager of Mali’s Tourism Promotion Agency, is dreaming of the old days. For adventurous tourists, Mali was once a destination of choice. The legendary city of Timbuktu or the Desert Film Festival used to attract visitors from across the globe.
But then internal strife intervened. In 2012, jihadists and separatist rebels took advantage of a coup in southern Mali to take control of the north of the country. The jihadists, who had hijacked the separarist rebellion, were repulsed with the help of French military in 2013.
The jihadists continue to launch sporadic terror attacks in which non-Malians are targets. In November 2015, they raided an upmarket hotel, popular with foreign nationals, in the southern capital of Bamako. The jihadists took more than 150 guests and staff hostage.
‘We want to show that Mali still exists’
“Despite our difficulties, we are here at the ITB to show that Mali still exists and that tourists can still come to our country,” Ouattara told DW. Her tourism promotion agency was founded by the Malian government just a year ago.
The Malian ITB delegation is trying market their country with postcards of famous Timbuktu mosques and barges.
Asked about the risks attached to a visit to Mali, Ouattara said it depends “on which side of the country you are. The southern part is safe, tourists can come. But the northern part still is not very safe.”
According to her agency, some 154,000 tourists visited Mali last year. But recent events are not going to drive that number upwards. In January, a Swiss woman was kidnapped in northern Mali by jihadists.
“Visit Eritrea – Three seasons in 2 hours” is the slogan at the Eritrean stand. The country on the Horn of Africa also doesn’t have a good image abroad. An estimated 5,000 young Eritreans flee the country every month, mainly because of the compulsory military service of indeterminate duration.
Human rights organisations accuse the Eritrean government of stiffling freedom of expression and opinion, among other things. In 2014, “Reporters without Borders” called Eritrea “Africa’s biggest prison for journalists,” a charge the government in Asmara strongly rejects.
Honeymoon in Eritrea?
But there is no sign of any such discord or strife at Eritrea’s stand at the ITB. There is a picture showing a steam train crossing a viaduct against a lush greeen backdrop. Staff in traditional white attire distriubte brochures and postcards.
“Eritrea is a good place for newly-married couples. We have beauful islands for them to enjoy their honeymoon. For old people, who want to enjoy the sunshine and the climate. We also have buildings which are a thousand years old, so it’s a good place for archeologists as well”, said Samuel Gebremariam, a tour operator from the capital Asmara.
Asked whether Eritrea’s negative image abroad was scaring off tourists, Gebremariam was quick to reply. “The reports are not scaring off tourists. Eritrea is a good country, it attracts many tourists” he said.
The International Tourism Fair (ITB) in Germany’s capital Berlin runs until 13 March.