Cablegate: Mali: A New Tourist Destination?

DE RUEHBP #0543/01 2251333
R 131333Z AUG 09 ZDK



E.O. 12958: N/A


1. Summary: Tourism has become Mali's third largest export
after gold and cotton, showing steady growth in 2008 in spite
of the global economic downturn. Malian tourism officials
are optimistic about continued growth in 2009, but private
sector operators say the effects of the worldwide recession
are already noticeable in the number of cancelled
reservations they face. Private sector operators also point
to concerns about security in the north and structural issues
within Mali's tourism sector, which threaten to stifle the
industry's long-term growth. End summary.

Tourism Grows in 2008

2. In a public ceremony on July 23, Malian Minister of
Tourism, N'diaye Bah, announced that tourism had become
Mali's third largest export after gold and cotton. In 2008,
tourism generated CFA 70 billion (USD 140 million),
equivalent to five percent of the country's GDP in 2008.
This news was particularly surprising in the midst of the
global financial crisis, which has slowed tourism worldwide.
Using data collected from Mali's airports, hotels, and
restaurants, the National Tourism Board (OMATHO) reported
that the number of visitors to Mali in 2008 grew 2.66 percent
over the previous year as compared to two percent growth
worldwide, according to the International Organization for

3. During a July 29 meeting, National Tourism Board (OMATHO)
Director Oumar Balla Toure echoed the Minister's optimism
that, keeping in line with the recent trend, tourism would
continue to expand in 2009. Citing OMATHO's key figures,
Toure said the number of hotels in Mali had grown from 134 in
2001 to more than 500 in 2008. OMATHO reported the number of
jobs in tourism had grown 239 percent from 2001 to 2008. In
2008, Mali saw a total of 250,000 visitors. Asked about how
security concerns in northern Mali might impact tourism,
Toure was adamant that events in recent months -- including
the kidnapping by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) of
four European tourists in January (reftel) -- posed no danger
to tourists. Mali hosts a number of popular music festivals
in northern areas, including Timbutku and Anderamboukane,
along the Mali-Niger border. (NOTE: On June 2, 2009, the
Department of State issued a travel warning recommending
against all travel to northern Mali due to the kidnapping
threats against westerners. END NOTE.)

Private Sector Views

4. Private tour operators questioned the accuracy and
utility of the official statistics. Without offering
alternate figures, several private sector operators said the
fact that OMATHO lacked autonomy from the Ministry of Tourism
automatically called into question the reliability of any
data, even if collected directly from the country's airports,
hotels, and restaurants. Furthermore, the raw data
publicized by the Tourism Ministry did not reflect the more
important dimension of the multiplier effects tourism might
have on the Malian economy. Djibril Taboure, owner of one of
Mali's two largest travel agencies, ATS Travel, said what
Mali lacked was a coordinated public-private strategy for
expanding the tourism sector. The Tourism Ministry had been
ineffective in targeting key consumer groups, which would
attract higher end tourism with a larger impact on the
national economy than budget travel, for which Mali is a
popular destination. Taboure said the number of visitors to
Mali may have, indeed, risen in recent years, but he
attributed this to the international attention that Malian
musicians and artists had received rather than as the fruit
of any government effort to develop the industry.

5. Private sector operators said they felt the effects of
the financial crisis in 2009. Reservations at ATS were
significantly lower than in 2008. Similarly, Fatoumata
Cisse, owner of Timbuctours and President of the Tourism
Professionals Association, said she had had more
cancellations this year than in the past. Taboure attributed
the decline predominantly to the economic crisis, though he
said insecurity in northern Mali would undoubtedly affect
tourism. Subsequent to the January kidnappings, several
diplomatic missions issued travel warnings urging against
travel to the north, including Timbuktu, and areas east of
Gao, where the four European hostages were taken. Both
Taboure and Cisse said these warnings would discourage travel
to previously popular tourist destinations.


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Comment: Promising, But Challenges Remain

8. The growth in Mali's tourism sector is a positive sign in
the current global economic environment, which poses
particular hardships for low-income countries. To date, Mali
has been buffered from the worst effects of the crisis by its
reliance on gold as its principal export, as gold prices have
remained high while the prices of other commodities, such as
cotton, have plummeted. But while officials tout tourism as
one of Mali's growth engines, the comments of Mali's largest
private tour operators suggest that this might be premature
without a coordinated strategy to develop the sector.
Growing insecurity in the north may also threaten Mali's
nascent tourism sector, as visitors
avoid the country's popular music festivals. End comment.


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