Malawi

Malawi

This African country will enchant and surprise you with its dramatic scenery, welcoming locals and heritage towns 
 
Writer: Dani Redd  |  Project Manager: Jordan Levey

 
Malawi is the place to visit if you want to enjoy sublime natural landscapes without too many other people. Even the capital city of Lilongwe feels remarkably relaxed and uncrowded. It’s the place to visit if you enjoy friendly interactions. ‘Malawi’ translates to ‘the warm heart of Africa’ in the local language Chichewa, and the name is apt – you’ll find strangers welcoming you like an old friend.
 
One of the nation’s star attractions is Lake Malawi, a vast body of water stretching almost the entire length of the country and encircled by the peaks of the Great Rift Valley. All around the lake are beaches where you can relax or try watersports such as stand-up paddleboarding and jetskiing. You can also learn to scuba dive in the translucent waters or take a catamaran ride to some of the lake’s uninhabited islands. The Lake of Stars Festival, a three-day culture and music event, is held on the lakeshore every September.
 
In the south of the country you’ll find mist-shrouded forests and dramatic mountainscapes, including Mount Mulanje. Its highest peak is the 3,000 metre Sapitwa, which means ‘unreachable’ in Chichewa, although it can be climbed on a multiday hike. If going on safari is more your thing, Malawi has several opportunities for wildlife spotting – one of the best is Majete Wildlife Park, which has successfully reintroduced lions.
 
If you enjoy untouched landscapes and friendly interactions, then Malawi’s the country for you.

Malawi Department of Tourism

Malawi Department of Tourism was created to maintain a vibrant destination image that inspires and informs potential visitors, the travel trade and the media. The intention is to encourage potential tourists around the globe to visit Malawi, the Warm Heart of Africa. We caught up with Isaac Katopola, Director of Tourism, to find out more about the department and the country itself.
 
Outlook Travel (OT): What are your organisation’s current goals?
Isaac Katopola (IK): To create an enabling environment for the development, regulation and promotion of a sustainable tourism sector.
 
OT: Are there any interesting projects in the pipeline you wish to highlight?
IK: The Nankumba Peninsula tourism project is one worth highlighting. Some of the key components in this project include construction of an integrated five-star resort at Cape Maclear and an international airport at Namiasi in Mangochi. In addition, the Mulanje Mountain Cable Car Project will provide environmentally friendly infrastructure in the area. We will also be building an ecotourism lodge in Malunje.
 
OT: Why, in your opinion, should someone visit Malawi?
IK: Malawi boasts lots of diversified natural and cultural tourism assets. There are plenty of reasons why you should visit. For a start, there’s a pleasant climate. Malawi is peaceful and compact and is renowned for its hospitality. As Africa’s newest ‘Big Five’ destination, it’s a great place for going on safari. There are lots of other outdoor sports on offer, especially around the gorgeous Lake Malawi. The country has a fascinating cultural heritage too.
 
OT: What potential is there for ecotourism development in the country?
IK: Malawi’s tourism product is largely nature-based and this enables development of ecotourism as a main product. Malawi’s rich cultural heritage also offers potential for further development of eco-tourism in the country.

The rejuvenation of national parks and game reserves over the past decade has increased locals’ involvement and participation in conservation. Local SMEs close to protected areas have been able to engage in various economic activities aimed at sustaining their livelihoods.

In order to enhance the benefits derived from this, an investment masterplan which will identify potential sites for ecotourism is being developed. This initiative is being supported by funds from the African Development Bank under the Promoting Investment and Competitiveness in the Tourism Sector Project (PICTS). The government is also encouraging public private partnership (PPP) models that will yield greater benefits to host communities surrounding major attractions in the country.
 
OT: What trends are transforming the tourism industry in Malawi and how are you utilising them?
IK: There has been growth in the number of meetings and conferences being hosted in Malawi. The Department offers technical support to event organisers as well as facilitating some of their activities aimed at enhancing event publicity.

Digitalisation is transforming how business is being undertaken in our tourism industry. We encourage local operators to provide reliable internet services to their clients and make use of social media and the internet to enhance their online presence for business growth. We have also intensified our social media presence, and are regularly updating our web page, so as to generate more content about tourism in Malawi.

Experiential travel is another travel trend transforming the industry. As Malawi is an off the beaten track destination, we appeal to those looking for a more authentic African experience. We have redefined our brand essence and market positioning to highlight the diversity and uniqueness of our offering.

More and more operators in the industry are concerned about environmental impact and are developing mechanisms to minimise waste. For instance, there is a reduction in the usage of plastic bottled water in some upmarket hotels, as well as recycling and reusing of glass bottles.
 
Malawi is one of the leaders in conservation. This has seen the country’s national parks and game reserves being completely transformed. Furthermore, conservation has encouraged collaboration between government agencies and partners such as African parks to use PPP models to enhance local participation in the management of the country’s tourism resources.
 
OT: What challenges does the tourist industry in Malawi face?
IK: We have a limited budget for destination marketing, which restricts access into some of the emerging markets that are outlined in the Strategic Tourism Marketing Framework.

No direct flights make it difficult to connect into the country. We rely on hubs such as Nairobi, Addis Ababa and Johannesburg which add more hours for travellers transiting to Malawi.

There is also a lack of coordination among the various public and private stakeholders to carry the tourism agenda forward.
 
OT: Are you optimistic about the future of the tourism industry in Malawi?
IK: I am certainly optimistic about the future of Malawi’s tourism industry. With all the initiatives being undertaken to revamp wildlife tourism in the country, expand the ecotourism offer, open hotels and venues for business events and also to enable more flights into the country, it is my belief that Malawi will soon be strategically positioned to compete with her neighbours.

Lastly, the approval of the National Tourism Policy by the cabinet will see the establishment of Malawi Tourism Authority. This will enable a more focussed approach towards destination marketing of Malawi, unlike the current situation where this is done within the Department of Tourism.

Outlook Recommends

Eat:
For a traditional yet luxurious steakhouse…
Sleep:
For stylish and stimulating urban luxury…
 
For sophisticated urban stays…
The Crossroads Hotel family consists of two chic urban hotels, Crossroads Hotel Lilongwe – conveniently located in Lilongwe’s Central Business District and linked to the Crossroads Shopping Complex – and Crossroads Hotel Blantyre, located in the heart of Blantyre. Both hotels appeal to business and leisure travellers, offering state of the art conference facilities, meeting rooms, a luxurious spa, fine-dining venues and elegant accommodation. The experience is enhanced by the company’s hospitable staff and personalised service. The hotels are the ideal venue for everything from a business meeting to a wedding banquet.
 
Do:
For tea tasting and coffee tours…
 
For guided hikes to Malawi’s highest point…

Focus On: Blantyre

Blantyre is the country’s commercial and industrial hub, and a more popular stopover with travellers than the capital, Lilongwe. Founded in 1876 by Scottish missionaries, it boasts a decent dining scene and some interesting cultural attractions.
 
The Museum of Malawi offers an interesting insight into the country’s history and heritage, with exhibitions on everything from the Iron Age to the country’s involvement in the slave trade. The Church of Central Africa Presbyterian building is a resplendent red-brick construction of arches, columns and towers, topped with a dome. Mandala House is the city’s oldest building – a colonial mansion built in 1882, which now houses a library, art gallery and a welcoming café.  
 
Another attraction of the city is its proximity to nature. It’s surrounded by hills, including Michiru Mountain. At a 15-minute drive from town, it’s a popular spot for a hike, and is a haven for wildlife such as antelopes, monkeys and hyenas.

Landmark Attractions 

There are no direct flights to Malawi from Europe, the United States, Oceania or Asia. The easiest way to reach the country is to fly via another African destination, such as Kenya or South Africa. Lilongwe International Airport is the largest in Malawi, flying to 10 different destinations in Africa, while ChilekaInternational Airport is another popular point of entry into the country.
 
There are plenty of ways to get around within the country. Long distance buses are popular, and some tourists choose to hire a car – most of the main roads are sealed, although you will encounter potholes. Minibuses will take you shorter distances within and between cities. It’s a great way to meet the residents, but if you prefer a more comfortable option then hiring a taxi is recommended.
 
If you’re short on time, you can fly from Lilongwe to Blantyre using the national carrier Malawian Airlines – the flight takes around an hour. But if you prefer slow travel, take the Ilala Ferry across Lake Malawi. It travels between Monkey Bay in the south and Chilumba in the north, making stops at lakeside villages and islands in between, and is a great way to check out the scenery.

Getting There and Around

There are no direct flights to Malawi from Europe, the United States, Oceania or Asia. The easiest way to reach the country is to fly via another African destination, such as Kenya or South Africa. Lilongwe International Airport is the largest in Malawi, flying to 10 different destinations in Africa, while Chileka International Airport is another popular point of entry into the country.

There are plenty of ways to get around within the country. Long distance buses are popular, and some tourists choose to hire a car – most of the main roads are sealed, although you will encounter potholes. Minibuses will take you shorter distances within and between cities. It’s a great way to meet the residents, but if you prefer a more comfortable option then hiring a taxi is recommended.

If you’re short on time, you can fly from Lilongwe to Blantyre using the national carrier Malawian Airlines – the flight takes around an hour. But if you prefer slow travel, take the Ilala Ferry across Lake Malawi. It travels between Monkey Bay in the south and Chilumba in the north, making stops at lakeside villages and islands in between, and is a great way to check out the scenery.

Sustainable tourism in the ‘warm heart of Africa’

Sustainable tourism isn’t just about finding environmentally friendly solutions to construction and waste management. It’s also about making a positive, long-lasting impact on the countries and communities that you visit
 
“We are really committed to trying to make tourism benefit local communities. Our motto is ‘trade, not aid’, as we don’t want people to have to rely just upon the aid industry,” says Kate Webb, Director of The Responsible Safari Company (RSC).
 
She and her husband set up RSC in 2008, shortly after Kate completed a master’s degree in International Development and Education.
 
RSC is a social enterprise tour operator based in Malawi, specialising in sustainable, educational and experiential travel for everyone from school children to CSR Groups. It arranges bespoke itineraries that incorporate safaris, responsible treks and kayaking trips with visits to local schools and communities to work on relevant projects, such as tree-planting, mural painting and much more. Tourists can also stay with local homestays for an immersive experience.
“Every time we have trips going into the communities we work with, they act as a business and invoice us. We pay for every person that visits,” Kate explains.
 
“With our community work, we haven’t started any of our own projects. We’ve only ever linked with existing community projects started by Malawians. That means we’re not replicating any work but supporting existing income-generating activities,” she continues.
 
RSC has supported three Malawi-based social initiatives since 2009. CISER (Community Initiative for Self Reliance) was started by Joseph, a boat-builder from Lake Malawi’s southern shores. He started a youth group to mitigate the effects of mass unemployment upon his community. The CISER youth group educate local villagers in the area on key development issues – tourists can join educational visits or help them prepare educational material to convey the effects of overfishing. It’s also possible to visit CISER’s plant nursery and learn about traditional boat building.
 
YODEP is a youth organisation working in villages at the foothills of Zomba Plateau. It was set up by a group of young people from the community to help address socio-economic conditions encountered by orphaned children, teenagers, the elderly and people infected and affected by HIV.
 
RSC has been working with YODEP to set up an Early Years Education Centre and match-funded solar power for an IT centre benefitting 100 students and 40 teachers. Visitors can take part in a community computer class or spend the day with YODEP, learning about the fantastic initiatives it runs in the area.
Nancholi Youth Organisation (NAYO) is an inspirational NGO supporting disadvantaged members of the Nancholi community in Blantyre. Visitors can work alongside teenage girls who have formed a village café, or visit a women’s sewing shop to learn how local handicrafts are made.
 
RSC has helped these communities in a variety of ways. It has installed water pumps in four villages in Lake Malawi, benefitting 16,000 people, and started a student scholarship programme, mentoring and funding 15 students to date. Between 2013-2016 it donated $36,500 towards assisting these communities.
Kate and her husband Dom also have a UK-based company, Orbis Expeditions, which runs expeditions in Malawi with the same communities (using RSC to manage the on-the-ground logistics). The company have recently moved into corporate social responsibility expeditions, which help businesses connect with communities in Malawi.
 
“It’s very different from the conventional ‘come and build a classroom in Africa’. Instead, we tell businesses to visit Malawi and use their CSR to engage staff,” Kate says. “Quite a lot of our clients have existing skills in finance or marketing and we help them link with local businesses and help them grow as well, so they’re directly benefitting the economy in Malawi.”
 
The Responsible Safari Company and Orbis Expeditions are examples of sustainable tourism projects that directly benefit local communities.
 
It’s worth remembering that in this current climate of uncertainty that it’s not just tourism companies that will be adversely affected, but the communities they help. Once travel bans have been lifted, we recommend supporting sustainable travel companies such as RSC, which support local communities and economies.