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    Natalia Bayona: Morocco is ‘Shining Star’ in Startups, Tourism-

    Startups and innovation are poised to be essential in developing the region’s tourism sector.

    18 Feb 2023

    Rabat - When the United Nations’ World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) partnered with Morocco to support the digitization of local Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs), UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili described those enterprises as “the backbone” of global tourism.

    Among those small businesses, and amid a growing spirit of entrepreneurship in Morocco and Africa, startups and particularly innovative businesses are starting to carve a space for themselves in the tourism sector.

    Morocco World News (MWN) spoke to Natalia Bayona, director of innovation, education, investments at the UNWTO for insights on where the tourism industry could be headed with those new developments, and how governments and the UNWTO are working to support those new businesses

    Tourism in Morocco

    For Bayona, Morocco is on the right track in developing its startup ecosystem and tourism industry.

    “Morocco is a shining star today when it comes to the startup ecosystem and of course when it comes to tourism,” she said, adding that the country recently ranked second in Africa and 72nd in the world in the field.

    The UNWTO partnered with Morocco’s ministry of tourism and the Moroccan Society of Tourism Engineering (SMIT) to encourage investments in the sector’s startups, she detailed.

    The cooperation includes startup accelerators and collaborations with academia to strengthen the environment of creating entrepreneurship in the country.

    The organization also hopes to strengthen the role that technology can play in the sector, especially as new technologies like augmented reality, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality start to take on a larger part in developing the tourism industry.

    Cooperation between the UNWTO and Moroccan tourism authorities seems to be increasing, as the country hosted the UN agency’s 117th executive council in Marrakech last year, convening 250 representative state members.

    “The designation of Morocco for holding the UNWTO Executive Council enhances institutional cooperation between the two parties and consolidates the position of the kingdom as a model in the promotion of sustainable, ethical and above all resilient tourism in the face of the various changes” facing the sector, Minister of Tourism Fatim-Zahra Ammor said during the event.

    What stands in the way?

    Despite noticeable progress in the tourism sector in general and the integration of small businesses in particular, Bayona sees two main challenges facing African countries: investment, and making the ecosystem more mature.

    African startups tend to lead the pack when it comes to the number of startups that apply to UNWTO programs, which means that the problem does not lie with a lack of entrepreneurial spirit or innovation in the region, Bayona explained.

    “The region is leading in terms of applications and the number of startups that are interested in tourism,” she said.

    While countries like Nigeria, South Africa, and Morocco are starting to form a strong startup ecosystem, other countries have a lot of traditional investments coming in to build infrastructure and hotels before to have a proper foundation for their tourism business.

    Traditional investments are, however, different from the kind that is needed to push innovation in the region.

    “When it comes to innovation investments, you need to seek international investments,” she said, emphasizing the importance of a mature and solid national investment product, along with acceleration programs.

    The team of a startup, the existence of a national market, and acceleration programs are the most important things to investors, the UNWTO official detailed, adding that Africa needs to be “more organized” in those ways.

    The second challenge lies in making startup ecosystems across the continent more mature, Bayona added.

    While there are a lot of startups, with the UNWTO receiving every year hundreds of applications per country for their programs, there are very few unicorns and scaleups, she noted.

    Unicorns are startups with a value of $1 billion or more, while scaleups are those with an already mature product and a proven profitable business model.

    More mature ecosystems that allow for more of these types of businesses therefore end up providing more jobs and providing more economically for the region.

    What is being done?

    Despite the shortcomings, the UNWTO has worked with several governments to strengthen innovation and entrepreneurship in the region, Bayona explained.

    The innovation and startup sectors are new even to the UN, as the tourism organization did not have a department for innovation and investments until five years ago.

    The organization has created programs in Africa to create startup competitions, help the sector embrace digitization, and help governments reform their investment frameworks.

    “With Zambia and Zimbabwe, we are working on helping them with technical assistance on how to develop the tourism innovation ecosystem, how to help entrepreneurs grow, and what types of incentives they need to bring to attract more investors,” she detailed.

    The UNWTO also works with private companies to bring more investments and social programs to the continent.

    “As you can see, the ecosystem is evolving and we see a lot of interest for example from Europe to bring technologies into the countries as a second step after they soft-land with a traditional investment,” Bayona said.

    The importance of youth

    Bayona puts a special emphasis on the role of young people, drawing attention to Africa as the youngest region in the world.

    “Remember that tourism is a top employer of youth, nonetheless 50% youth working in tourism only have secondary skills,” she said, stressing the importance of education to empower young people to take up entrepreneurship and make a difference in their communities.

    Despite the lack of resources, 50% of youth in tourism decided to become entrepreneurs, showing that there is a willingness to create businesses and products.

    For Bayona, the missing piece is education, which she describes as the most important investment in a person’s life.

    “In every single career in tourism, entrepreneurship and innovation is a mandate,” she argued while calling on young people to consider entrepreneurship as a viable path and seek education for it.


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