“The industry of the world’s optimists.” Tourism as a development strategy in Eastern Africa (1950s-early 1990s)

Dr. Dörte Lerp, Köln (Principal Investigator)


Over the course of the 20th century tourism has developed into „an impressive social as well as economic force“ (Berghoff und Korte 2002, 1). Tourism has grown into a global phenomenon whose influence “thoroughly penetrates society, politics, culture and, above all, the economy“ (Gyr 2010). Given this impact, it seems not surprising that it has also come to be considered “an effective means of achieving economic and social development” especially for destination areas in the Global South (Telfer / Sharpley 2016, 3). However, one could also argue that it was the continuous hopes placed in tourism as a development factor that turned it into what it is today: one of the largest global “industries” of the world.

When newly independent states in Africa decided to pursue tourism as a development strategy in the early 1960s the economic success of this policy was not self-evident. Nevertheless, optimism ran high. Tourism was expected to increase the foreign exchange earnings of host countries, contribute substantially to their gross national product, form a new source of income for the state and create jobs. To those who invested in projects in the Global South tourism promised stable returns and market advantages. While the economic crisis as well as social and environmental impacts diminished this optimism temporarily, most governments and financiers did not discard tourism as a development strategy, but continued to advocate for it. They did, however, adapt their expectations according to changing notions of development.

Looking at the example of wildlife tourism in two East African countries, Kenya and Tanzania, the project aims to investigate what fueled this economic optimism. How did postcolonial governments, financial institutions and private investors come to believe in the success of tourism as development strategy? And how did they adapt their expectations in the face of the economic crisis of the 1970s and early 1980s, that brought with it not only a decrease in tourist arrivals but weakened the belief in rapid economic growth and challenged it as the sole indicator for development?  Presuming that the actors involved did not form their expectations independently the project specifically concentrates on the social context and networks that shaped the belief in tourism as development strategy. It investigates the extent to which the actors’ preferences, identities and social norms were influenced by historical processes like decolonization, block confrontation and globalization. It analyses the role and function of expert networks and international organizations within the process of expectation formation. And it examines whose visions of the future eventually “succeeded” in guiding development policies and whose did not.