Updated: May 12, 2020
Africa is the second largest and most populous continent in the world. At 11.7 million square miles, it is large enough for the United States to fit inside it more than three times. It stretches from the Mediterranean Sea on the north, where it is culturally part of the Middle East, to the Atlantic Ocean on the west and the Indian Ocean on the east. Africa’s west coast juts out into the Atlantic much farther west than Europe, and its eastern side is much farther east. Dakar, Senegal, is only 4,000 miles from North Carolina. When you fly from New York to Johannesburg, South Africa, Dakar is only the half-way point.
Africa is arguably the world’s most culturally diverse continent. Nearly all the nationalities and cultures of the world seem to be represented there. The European colonial powers carved the continent up to claim territories for their colonial empires. The European influence dates back to 1652 when the Dutch East India Company founded Cape Town as an outpost only a few years after the Dutch West India Company founded what would become New York City. Cape Town was the first permanent European settlement in Africa. They all left their historical and cultural legacies, their languages, architecture and infrastructure, which are all part of the rich cultural tapestry of Africa today.
In the 1960s, a wave of African nationalism spread across the continent as one after another of the colonies sought and achieved independence. Many of the political struggles were severe and the battle for Africa’s rich resources led in some cases to systematic brutality, which has also left its mark on Africa. In the 1990s, South Africa, where the colonization all began, finally threw off its oppressive racist government and became a democratic country where all people have the right to vote. It led to an economic and cultural renaissance for the country, which has since moved into the forefront of African tourism.
In the north, Africa adjoins with Europe and the Middle East, both geographically and culturally. At the Strait of Gibraltar, Europe and Africa are separated by only 7.7 nautical miles of sea. Morocco and Spain practically bleed into each other with their blends of Moorish, Arab, Spanish, French and Roman influences. The Arab states of Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt form the northern rim of Africa. Egypt is one of the most popular and unique tourist destinations in the world. Morocco is not far behind it. To the south is the great Sahara Desert, and below that the great variety of sub-Saharan Africa.
The continent has tremendous geographical diversity, from desert to jungle, forest, savannahs, mountains, beaches and winelands. And it has the most spectacular wildlife on earth, with elephants, giraffes, zebras, lions, gorillas, rhinos, hippos, antelopes, buffalo, chimps and baboons.
While most American tourists don’t even think of Egypt and Morocco in the African context, African tourism has historically meant going on safari to most people. The safari business began with Kenya, then gradually spread, so that today Americans go on safari in Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda, Zambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Namibia and South Africa, and interest is spreading even farther.
But today, Americans are discovering Africa beyond the safari and seeing that Africa is rich in the many of the same kinds of attractions as elsewhere in the world. The highly developed civilizations offer great cultural and historical richness to discover, as well as modern cuisine and nightlife. In the 21st century, Africa is definitely on the ascendance.