Malawi in southeast Africa is often confused with Mali, or even the Maldives in the Indian Ocean – but it’s working hard right now to change that.
On my only visit there some 20 years ago, I could see the reasons why, despite its natural beauty and wildlife opportunities, Malawi had yet to be discovered as a tourist destination. She suffered from extreme poverty, exacerbated by the AIDS epidemic. When I then asked why there were so few directional signs along the main roads, an official told me that people “take them to make shelters”.
That has changed and the country recently unveiled a $660 million tourism investment master plan to accelerate infrastructure development, implemented through a public-private partnership with the African Development Bank.
“The tourism sector contributes to the growth of Malawi’s economy and supports a complex and dynamic value chain across many sectors, including agriculture, trade, health, environment and transport,” said Dr Lazarus McCarthy Chakwera, President of Malawi since June 2020.
“This generates significant foreign direct investment and export earnings for our country. It also stimulates and supports the development of small businesses, including shops, restaurants, travel agents, tour operators and guides, buses and taxis, and local markets.
And what will tourists find when they visit Malawi?
Although the country is landlocked, Lake Malawi, the third largest lake in Africa, has deep, clear waters and a backdrop of mountains. Its distinct water layers – usually three – don’t mix, providing more environments for plants and animals. This also explains the amazing color of the lake; the sediment stays at the bottom and the top layer is crystal clear.
Lake Malawi has more species of fish than any other lake in the world. New species are discovered regularly and some scientists believe that the lake could contain more than 2000.
Cape Maclear, or Chembe, is a resort town on Malawi’s Nankumba Peninsula, at the southern end of Lake Malawi. It is a small fishing village on Lake Nyasa with a dirt road leading into town.
Surrounded by forested mountains, the peninsula is known for its sandy beaches and granite rocks. The park is home to wildlife including antelope and baboons, and the waters of the lake are home to hundreds of species of colorful cichlids, seen at dive sites such as Otter Point.
The southern end of the lake is within Lake Malawi National Park, a UNESCO heritage site, popular with locals for diving and boating. This first freshwater national park in the world is important for the study of evolution, which has even been compared to that of Darwin’s finches of the Galápagos Islands.
The highlands of Malawi are divided by the Great Rift Valley. The Shire Valley, mountains and waterfalls of the Nyika Plateau are just a few of the beauty spots.
Travelers interested in safaris can see elephants, lions, leopards, African buffaloes, zebras, hippos and rhinos, mostly in national parks and game reserves. Many native animals include jackals and spotted hyenas, African wildcats, caracals and servals.
Malawi’s flagship sanctuary is the PASA-accredited Lilongwe Wildlife Centre, first opened in 2008 by the Lilongwe Wildlife Trust (LWT). The country is working to repopulate and maintain its precious animals. This sanctuary is home to rescued and injured animals including lions, monkeys and crocodiles.
Lilongwe is the capital of Malawi, on the Lilongwe River. Forest paths wind through the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre, while shops, bars and restaurants dot the Old Town district. The Capital District, also known as Downtown, is home to the 21st-century China-built Parliament Building and other Chinese buildings.
Malawi has great tourism potential. And in the next few years, it hopes to become a popular African destination, not to be confused with any other country.