Unlike the United States, not one of the following countries has had a single case of Ebola this year: South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana and Namibia. If that’s surprising news, it shouldn’t be. None of these countries is near the heart of the outbreak in West Africa. In fact, Sierra Leone’s capital of Freeport, one of the cities hardest hit by the disease, is closer to Paris than it is to Johannesburg.
So why are so many people canceling travel plans to Africa’s safari belt?
Ebola is a frightening and dangerous disease, which is what prompted the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue warnings advising Americans to avoid inessential travel to several West African countries. But even though no such warnings are in place for other countries on the continent, fragile, tourist-dependent economies are being jeopardized as people cancel travel plans to disease-free areas of the continent.
A recent survey conducted by Safaribookings.com of 500 tour operators found that they are experiencing a 20% to 70% drop in forward bookings because of fear of Ebola. Bloomberg News quoted one tour operator as saying a client told him, “My feeling is that if [Ebola] can get to the United States, there isn’t a safe place right now in Africa to be.”
That is a sentiment based on ignorance. The chance of contracting Ebola in any of the countries mentioned above is about the same as the chance of catching it in Salem, Ore., or Portland, Maine or Pasadena. Tourists would have a greater chance of being run over by a taxi in Istanbul or New York or Paris than of contracting Ebola in Kruger National Park in South Africa.
Four key tourist destinations in Africa — Botswana, Namibia, Kenya and South Africa — have gone so far as to implement a ban on travelers from the affected countries. Those four destination countries also put their own residents through careful screening before they are allowed to return after visiting affected areas — much as happens in the United States. Furthermore, travel advisories to the affected countries have been issued.
Yet cancellations from Western tourists continue. In a spirit of “forgive them for they know not what they do,” many southern and east African tour operators have waived their normal cancellation fees. But as magnanimous as the policy is, I worry that it also feeds ignorance, encouraging people to make decisions on fear rather than rational thought.
There’s every reason for people to travel to Africa to see the amazing array of large mammals, as well as birds, reptiles and amphibians and insects. There is nothing like it anywhere else in the world, and many species are under threat from development, environmental degradation and poaching.
People who care about wildlife enough to plan trips to see it on the African continent should understand the effect the travel decline could have. Tourism in sub-Saharan Africa is estimated to be a $36-billion industry, employing 12.8 million people directly and indirectly. Canceled trips take food out of African mouths.
And hungry people are desperate people. Left with no choice but to find other ways of feeding themselves, some are likely to turn to poaching. The slaughter of Africa’s wildlife species is already happening at an alarming rate, and more poachers could tip the balance. Tourism cancellations are the last thing that Africa, her people and her iconic animals need.
Joao Oliveira, founder of a Tanzania-based tour company, made this observation to a reporter for Bloomberg news: “People do not cancel their vacations to London or Paris because there is a conflict in Ukraine.”
Yet they cancel trips to South Africa because of an epidemic thousands of miles away. Does that make any sense?
Clarissa Hughes is a Capetown-based writer with 30 years of experience in the tourism industry as a guide and tour manager.