The threat of the deadly Ebola epidemic in West Africa is palpable. Each week the number of confirmed cases and deaths grows. The predictions about the outbreak’s potential spread are overwhelming.
And now safari operators are beginning to report a proliferation of a different kind — that of concerned travelers who are canceling or hesitating on their safari trips to East and Southern Africa, despite the fact that most popular safari destinations are more than 3,000 miles from the epicenter of the outbreak.
“Perhaps the most pressing issue facing the industry as a whole as well as travel to Africa is the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa,” said Nic Griffin, chief executive of the Thornybush Collection, a group of game lodges in South Africa.
“Whilst as Africans we are aware that in fact West Africa is closer to Europe than it is to South Africa, tourists from Europe, the Far East in particular and the USA, lump Africa together and sadly feel very threatened by making Southern Africa their holiday choice.”
Added Jim Holden, president of African Travel, “Our concern is for the calls we are not getting for Africa. We have certainly seen a downturn in inquiries for Africa with agents saying that clients are putting off going on safari until they are more sure of the Ebola situation and what it means for travelers.”
Worries about the potential mid- to long-term effects of the Ebola outbreak on the tourism economies throughout Africa were echoed by numerous operators on the continent last week.
And while safari operators don’t appear to be seeing mass cancellations yet, which could be due in part to the penalties and fees that are associated with rescinding a booking, cancellations are definitely starting to roll in, for some in greater numbers than for others. And forward bookings have come to a grinding halt for many.
According to a report issued last week by the Netherlands-based website Safaribookings.com, which surveyed 500 of the safari tour operators on its site, half of the operators reported that bookings were down between 20% and 70% due to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. The other half reported that it was “business as usual.”
“It is a heavy blow for the industry and the numerous wildlife reserves that rely on its revenue,” Safaribookings.com wrote in a release about its survey.
Emmanuel Fundira, chief executive of the Zimbabwe-based Astoc Leisure Group, said the company has seen 25% of its bookings to East Africa canceled following the Ebola outbreak in Western Africa.
“We foresee the impact of the Ebola crisis on the safari industry in Southern Africa will be considerable,” Fundira said. “Due to lack of credible data and statistics, visitors to Africa are generally shying away from the destination due to unknown risk factors.”
Africa Albida Tourism in Zimbabwe reported that it has had “minimal cancellations” that have thus far amounted to less than $15,000 for the months of October and November, all of which came from groups from Japan and Malaysia.
The future of Ebola
According to the World Health Organization, as of last week there were 6,242 probable, confirmed and suspected cases of Ebola, and 2,909 reported deaths in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently advises against travel to those countries.
In Nigeria, 20 cases and eight deaths have been reported, and in Senegal, one case and no deaths have been reported. The CDC currently advises that travelers take enhanced precautions when traveling to Nigeria or Senegal.
Separately, there have been 68 cases of Ebola and 41 deaths reported in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This outbreak is unrelated to the current outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, the CDC said.
Without additional interventions or changes in community behavior, the CDC estimates there could be up to 550,000 Ebola cases in Liberia and Sierra by Jan. 20, or 1.4 million if corrections for underreporting are made, with cases in Liberia currently doubling every 15 to 20 days, and those in Sierra Leone and Guinea doubling every 30 to 40 days.
The deadly virus presents a very serious risk, and countries near and far are taking stock of how the situation is evolving in West Africa, and at the same time taking precautions within their own borders in the event Ebola reaches their doorsteps.
Countries throughout Africa have implemented various policies regarding Ebola, including the cessation of flights to the affected West African nations and screening and monitoring travelers who have been to West Africa.
Despite those precautions, clearly a portion of travelers are concerned about heading to regions of Africa where there have been no reported cases of Ebola.
But according to some operators, it’s important to note that not all businesses across the continent are being negatively affected. At Micato Safaris, for instance, business is still on the up.
Micato reported that bookings for 2014 are up 16% over 2013. Additionally, the booking window for 2015 has averaged 215 days, up from 181 a year ago, and advance bookings for 2015, year to date, exceed the same period last year by 11%, according to a letter submitted to Travel Weekly by Dennis Pinto, managing director at Micato.
“We attribute this, in large measure, to our partnerships with travel advisers who have informed their globe-trotting travelers that Africa is the size of Europe, Asia, India and the USA combined and that Sierra Leone is closer to London than either Nairobi or Cape Town,” wrote Pinto. “These educated travelers would no more cancel a gorilla trek in Rwanda than they would a long weekend in London.”
And while plenty of Africa operators have not seen huge impacts to their business, some are concerned about what the evolution of the outbreak could mean for the future of the safari business, for tourism revenue in countries that desperately rely on it and for the vulnerable wildlife in safari countries where without tourism dollars, the poaching economy is likely to step in to replace those losses.
“The larger story is that if guides and drivers and rangers aren’t working, the No. 1 thing they have to fall back on is poaching,” said Ashish Sanghrajka, president of Big Five Tours and Expeditions, which is starting to see cancellations come in for East Africa safaris.
“If we’re stopping tourism, it’s not just the poaching,” Sanghrajka said. “Now those countries are paralyzed. You’re talking about countries going into deficit overnight because of how important tourism is to them.”
Looking at the long-term effects a lasting Ebola outbreak could have on tourism, Sanghrajka is worried that some very real and permanent damage could be done to vulnerable elephant and rhino populations as poaching moves in to replace tourism.
According to Sanghrajka and other operators in the region, there is potential for a massive ripple effect beyond just that of the spread of the virus itself. Fueled by fear, Ebola’s impact could go far beyond the actual public health threat the virus poses.
Noted African Travel’s Holden, “It is a great shame that the good people of East and Southern Africa, who through their work in the safari business are helping to alleviate poverty and practicing wildlife conservation, are being made to suffer due to an event taking place in another part of Africa 3,500 miles distance.”
Dorine Reinstein contributed to this report.