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NBA’s Big Africa Push Could Be a Catalyst for a New Tourism Future

NBA Basketball Africa League president Amadou Fall at the opening tournament game in Kigali, Rwanda — kicking off a new era for Africa's sports and tourism.

It’s a powerful nod for Africa, giving it a solid competitive tourism advantage on the other side of the pandemic, from leisure to events. Will its destinations rise up to the opportunity?

In 2019, Africa was deemed the second fastest growing tourism region in the world. Travel contributed $194 billion to the continent’s gross domestic product, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. South Africa, Egypt, and Nigeria had made the largest tourism contributions to GDP, and Tunisia and Rwanda showed over 10 percent growth, ranking among the top ten fastest growing tourism destinations.

And then, Covid. There’s been no shortage of challenges for the African continent since, from the decimation of tourism jobs — 51 percent lost by August 2020 — to conversation areas under threat due to loss of tourism revenue, internal civil strife and the Delta variant soaring as a result of vaccine inequity.

But a significant development has emerged out of the continent this year that could push Africa’s tourism industry back onto its pre-Covid growth trajectory faster than anticipated, while catapulting it into an innovative future. The game changer is the U.S. National Basketball Association’s (NBA) launch of its first professional basketball league to operate outside of North America: the Basketball Africa League (BAL), under NBA Africa as a legal entity overseeing the NBA’s operations on the continent.

Sports, along with deeper culture and more urban tourism, serve to offer closer-to-reality experiences for Africa to market beyond tried-and-true narratives of safaris and adventure trips.

Valued at $1 billion and now backed by private investors such as former NBA players Dikembe Mutombo, Grant Hill, Luol Deng, and more recently, former U.S. President Barack Obama — NBA Africa is poised to be a game changer for the continent as a tourism destination.

“After about a decade of activity, the NBA reflected on what we’ve done in Africa, and the decision was that there was significantly more opportunity that we could tap into on the continent in terms of basketball, in terms of commercial partnerships, in terms of social and economic impact,” said Victor Williams, CEO of NBA Africa.

In July, former president Barack Obama jointed NBA Africa as a strategic partner.

The spillover effect from this long-term collaborative NBA and investor-backed venture has already opened the door to next-level tourism collaborations amid a pandemic. It’s showing the African tourism sector that its potential remains untapped.

A multiyear partnership with Rwanda’s travel industry — the Rwanda Development Board and RwandAir — as well as with NIKE and Jordan as on-court outfitters, among others, helped kick off the first BAL championship tournament in May 2021. Teams from 12 African countries traveled to Kigali to compete and remained in a bubble throughout the tournament.

NBA Africa and BAL executives are well aware of the impact that one of America’s most recognized brands will have on Africa’s tourism sector long term, particularly once the annual BAL tournament takes its original format of being hosted across multiple African countries.

Approximately 500 international guests from the NBA’s immediate circle traveled to the continent, lured by the new initiative in spite of having to endure quarantine, testing and city curfews in May that stunted ancillary activities.

“The way we look at it is, tourism and investment go hand in hand — those hands are mutually beneficial to each other, and what allows them to operate and be successful is confidence,” said John Manyo-Plange, vice president and head of strategy and operations at the Basketball Africa League.

“And you know, nothing gives off confidence more than a global, international sports brand saying we are confident in the infrastructure, we are confident in the operating environment, we are confident in the health and safety protocols and the middle of a pandemic, we’re going to bring our arguably the largest event that we’ve done on the African continent to Kigali.”

That itself is what gets people going, if the NBA is here well then it should be okay for me to come as well, Manyo-Plange added.

For now, NBA Africa’s league has created a buzz across the continent and boosted host Rwanda’s tourism industry in May, amid the pandemic.

“I think we didn’t understand how huge this was until it actually happened, you know because I was also going to the events,” said Bonita Mutoni, chair of Rwanda Tours and Travel Association, adding that the caliber of the celebrities and heavy weights who attended was surprising to her.

“It was phenomenal, I’d never seen anything like that. For the operators here, it was the first time this had happened. I think now to be more prepared for the next one, so that we’re able to share our packages, we’re able to prepare ourselves in the city.”

The promise is big for raising the continent’s travel profile coming out of a global crisis. It’s a huge opportunity to bolster “Brand Africa” and diversify the continent’s tourism industry offerings to showcase Africa’s cities and creative hubs, beyond the typical focus on the Big Five. Will