No continent has more countries than Africa. From lush volcanic islands to vast desert nations — Africa boasts a total of 54 countries. Despite this, just a handful of places shape Africa's reputation as a travel destination. It’s the likes of South Africa and Morocco taking the crown as the top tourist picks, but we think many travellers are missing a trick by not venturing further afield...
10 Hidden Gems
We've chosen 10 countries that not only receive some of the least visitors in the continent but also qualify as hidden gems.
To give you some context, South Africa receives over 14 million international tourists every year, while Morocco gets over 13 million. Most of the countries on our list only receive under 100 000 visitors a year!
It's time to look beyond the usual suspects and find out why you should be heading to these less touristy corners of this continent.
The data in this article is taken from the World Bank using the latest recorded numbers of international tourists arriving in Sub-Saharan countries every year.
Comoros Islands: 45,100 visitors per year
If you close your eyes and imagine a picture-perfect island destination, maybe - just maybe - you'll conjure a vision resembling the beauty and tranquillity found in the Comoros Islands.
Located between Madagascar and Mozambique, the Comoros consists of four main islands and many smaller ones. All of them have that same winning combination of white sand beaches and tropical waters yet the country has never achieved the same kind of popularity as its illustrious island neighbours, the Seychelles and Mauritius.
Word is quickly spreading about the wonders of the Comoros though, so if island hopping in the Indian Ocean sounds like a seductive travel adventure - get planning! Languid island days can be spent admiring the sea turtles on the beaches, or bobbing about in the turquoise waters as you go whale watching or snorkelling in coral reefs. Inland, virgin rainforests await and ylang-ylang plantations can be explored. There is also a volcanic salt lake to see, and a culmination of African, Arab and French cultures to experience.
Djibouti: 63, 000 visitors per year
Dwarfed by the scale of many other African countries, the tiny country of Djibouti is located in East Africa. Although it isn't developed for tourism (yet), Djibouti offers everything a travel-hungry adventurer is after.
Highlights include the alien landscape of Lake Assal which, at 155m below sea level, is the lowest point in Africa. Despite the tempting blue of the water and the dazzling white of the sand, it's a salt lake, which means no swimming is allowed, so instead, you'll have to be satisfied gazing at the unusual, otherworldly topography.
For more traditional beachy experiences, there is Moucha Island - a very small coral island with only 20 inhabitants and many wonderful beaches to explore, snorkel and dive. You might also be intrigued enough to visit Goubbet Al-Kharab, which translates to "Island of the Devil".This curious lump of land sticks out from the sea and is shrouded in folklore and tales of strange maritime creatures.
Sierra Leone: 70,000 visitors per year
Tourism has never taken off in Sierra Leone. The Civil War (which only ended in 2002) and Ebola epidemic dominated global narratives about the country and kept tourist numbers down. Now that Sierra Leone has been Ebola-free for nearly 6 years, more travellers are visiting - beguiled by the wealth of things to see and do.
Things like, for example, visiting the country's stunning coastline. The beaches of the Turtle Islands, Banana Island and Tokeh are compelling visions of paradise with palm tree blooms and powder white sand.
If you head to Tiwai Island, you'll also be able to explore an enchanting inland island and glide along the banks of Moa River before wandering inland to the rainforest with a local guide. Here you'll search for birds, butterflies, chimpanzee's, monkeys and more. You might even be lucky enough to see the very rare and very cute pygmy hippos.
The capital Freetown, built on the lower slopes of Sugar Loaf mountain, is a brightly painted, brightly coloured moving mass of people and traffic. Spending some time here is sure to give you a more well-rounded experience of what Sierra Leone is all about.
São Tomé and Príncipe: 33,400 visitors per year
Meet São Tomé and Príncipe - another example of a beautiful island country in Africa that hardly gets any visitors. Despite the idyllic landscapes of these islands, São Tomé and Príncipe barely see any tourism.
As the second smallest country in Africa, it's nicknamed the African Galapagos due to the high number of endemic species found there. Located in the Gulf of Guinea, it consists of two main islands: São Tomé, the larger island, and Príncipe, the smaller one.
If you're after a slice of tranquillity in the tropics - this is the place for you. A visit might entail swimming in the volcanic rock pools on Praia Piscina, canoeing through mangrove forests, visiting cocoa plantations ( São Tomé and Príncipe used to be known as the Chocolate Islands) and much, much more. These islands are a true playground for nature lovers, and there are plenty of eco-tourism ventures which you can build your trip around.
Chad: 87,000 visitors per year
The huge landlocked country of Chad lies in north-central Africa. Travel advice on government websites is red-hot with warnings about not travelling to Chad - but we really couldn't resist putting this country on our list. Why? Well, despite Chad being far from a traditional tourist destination, the beauty of this country is unmissable.
With a red lake, incredible rock formations, a huge desert oasis, and miles of mesmerizingly barren landscape - the environment in Chad is testing to the hardiest of travellers, but unforgettable for anyone bold enough to make Chad part of their next adventure.
Highlights include the Ennedi Desert, The Lakes of Ounianga (which are a Unesco World Heritage Site) and Zakouma National Park. We'd recommend booking a trip through a tour company, like this one here, which offers comprehensive itineraries and allows you to visit with the safety and expertise of a local guide.
Guinea Bissau: 52,400 visitors per year
Guinea Bissau is another of Africa's underdog travel destinations. This West African country has vast natural beauty, crowned by the stunning Bissagos archipelago - a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve where 88 different islands and islets dot the Atlantic 48km (30 miles) off the mainland.
About 20 of these islands are inhabited by local fishing communities, while the rest, according to sacred beliefs, are inhabited by spirits. One of the most populated islands Orango is traditionally a matriarchal community which used to be governed by female priestesses. Although outside influence has slowly modified ancient island traditions, age-old beliefs continue to govern the islands and help preserve the natural ecosystem.
Many might be tempted to skip on travelling to Bissagos due to their isolated position, but those who make the voyage are rewarded by laid-back island days spent lagoon-lounging, exploring secluded beaches, feasting on the Portuguese-West African cuisine, exploring island villages, and seeing if the elusive saltwater hippos can be spotted.
Mauritania: 30,000 visitors per year
With much of the country uninhabited and covered by the Sahara Desert, Mauritania feels worlds away from the slick tourist setups in the deserts of Morocco or Egypt. It is in fact one of the least densely populated countries in the world and visited only by those with a thirst for intrepid travel and love for vast desert landscapes.
A "best-of" itinerary would include a visit to the lush palm groves of Terjit, an oasis tucked away in a valley along the Adrar plateau. Here you can enjoy swimming in the natural pools during the day, and star-gazing to your heart's content during the night.
There is also Chinguetti, a medieval trading centre where travellers can have the unique experience of seeing what an ancient Saharan city looks like. Of course, if you're up for it, there is also Mauritania Iron Ore Train. If you haven't heard about it, check out this video here as this train journey has achieved legendary status in the world of crazy travel adventures.
While a visit to Mauritania is not for the faint-hearted and comfort-orientated, it is the right kind of destination for anyone looking to rack up some out of the ordinary travel stories. This travel guide to Mauritania is a good starting place for anyone interested in visiting.
Guinea: 99,000 visitors per year
Guinea continues to slip under the radar for most travellers. Ebola impacted the small tourist industry the country once had, and an unstable political climate has held Guinea back from developing a solid tourist industry.
Now an Ebola free region, Guinea has been welcoming visitors since 2016, and while we don't want to show any favouritism, this just might be the most gorgeous out of the trio of African Guineas that sit along the West coast of the continent.
Here you'll find horizons after horizon of beautiful, varied landscapes. Fouta Djallon, for example, is a lush highland region in the centre of the country where waterfalls, gorges and sandstone towers draw in hikers and nature lovers. Then, down by the coast are the Los Islands - a small archipelago just 2 km from the mainland, and a perfect place for attuning to a low-key beach lifestyle where sandy shores are enjoyed by a few locals and the odd tourist.
Lovers of all things music and arts should also mark Guinea as a place to explore, as there is a strong culture of making and creating in this country. The Centre d'Exposition Artisanal de N'zérékoré is a wonderland of weavers, basket-makers and carvers, and at the Centre d'Art Acrobatique Keita Fodeba, you can watch a troupe of acrobats, dancers and contortionists practice for local performances.
Burkina Faso: 143,00 visitors per year
Despite being the most popular destination on our list, Burkina Faso is by no means a well-known tourist destination. In fact, if you like jam-packed itineraries and destinations where there is an almost panic-inducing amount of places to see, Burkina Faso is not for you. But if you like to travel slowly and spend time experiencing how locals live in a country where very few people will ever visit - Burkina Faso is definitely worth exploring.
The expansive natural landscapes are what travellers fall in love with when visiting Burkina Faso. They go to take in the serenity of Lake Tengrela, the waterfalls of Karfiguela, the 2 billion year old Domes of Fabedougou, the strikingly designed clay mosque in Bobo-Dioulasso, and endless views of baobab trees, cattle and herders that characterize the sleepy savanna lands.
Equatorial Guinea: unknown
Off-the-beaten-path-vibes are strong when it comes to Equatorial Guinea. No official data exists on the country's tourist numbers, but rumour has it that the nation receives in the region of 6000 visitors a year - making it one of the least visited countries in the world.
This is definitely the pick for anyone curious to visit a country shrouded in mystery, as there is still a lack of information available for interested visitors. And despite there having been a few attempts at galvanising a tourist sector in Equatorial Guinea, this has been to little avail.
So why should you go? Well, for starters, Bioko Island is totally worth a visit. A standout in terms of biodiversity, it is home to a number of endangered species and gaining popularity with eco-tourists. The volcanic beaches, dramatic waterfalls, and wildlife (found mainly in the south of the island) are all part of the country's off-the-grid appeal. Here is a good guide for those interested in what a trip to Equatorial Guinea could entail.
Why do these countries receive so few visitors?
While we've been waxing lyrical about the beauty and bounty of these places, you might have been wondering exactly why these countries receive so few visitors?
Widespread tourism has never taken off in these countries for a number of reasons. Common causes include a lack of air connectivity, the requirement of visas and travel documents, political instability, as well as hard-to-ignore-fact that these nations are poor, and lack infrastructure and investment in their tourist industries.
All this has made it harder for both domestic and international travels to visit these destinations, but with a lot of extra planning and research, it's possible! And remember, if you are hesitant about travelling to less touristy parts of Africa, you can always find well-reviewed tour companies that offer safe, comprehensive itineraries in all these destinations.