The drop in African safari tourism in the wake of the Ebola virus was unnecessary and needs to be addressed urgently by those who didn’t do enough to address travellers’ concerns, says a frustrated Graham Boynton
If it is any consolation, 2015 has to be a better year for African tourism than the twelve months just passed. It couldn’t be much worse. For most, 2014 was a collection of calamities that began in Kenya with a series of terrorist attacks on civilians by al-Shabaab, gathered momentum with the spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa, and then saw a wave of tourist cancellations across the continent.
As I said in this column last year, the dramatic fall-off in tourism to Kenya – most safari operators reported a drop of more than 40 per cent over the year – has profoundly threatened the viability of a number of the Masai Mara’s private conservancies. By the end of the year people were more optimistic, but a significant revival is still some way off.
Just as worrying was the extreme response to the West African Ebola outbreak, which saw cancellations to destinations as far away as Cape Town, particularly from Asian and American travellers. I was travelling in the US during the accompanying media firestorm and, as uninformed and hysterical as it was, what bothered me most was the complete lack of response from African tourism’s public sector.
Having made four trips to Africa last year I find the hysteria bewildering. As I said at the time, I felt safer in the Masai Mara, in the Okavango swamps and in South Africa’s Kruger National Park than I felt in my home city of London. Safer from terrorist incursions and from transmittable diseases. In other words, Africa does not warrant this hysteria. Had this been Australia, New Zealand or the US itself, the national tourist boards would have been out on public platforms putting the Ebola outbreak in perspective and making the case for a resumption of normal services.
Clearly, what is required throughout 2015 is a massive publicity campaign in the traditional safari markets (the United Kingdom, Europe and the US) to persuade tourists to think again. Already groups of private sector operators and lodge owners have started discussing tactics, but at the time of writing this there is no coordinated plan in place.
But even if they do get a PR campaign going, they need to go further. Air fares to Africa are quite high compared with those to Asia, and, in South Africa particularly, hotels are 30 per cent more expensive than their equivalents in Asia. Africa needs to be seen as outstanding value for money, and at the moment it isn’t. To that end visa fees should also be waived for the immediate future. Given that tourism is now a competitive global industry, Africa’s edge was significantly blunted in 2014.
As anyone who has travelled there knows, this is a continent with rare and wonderful qualities. To paraphrase Karen Blixen, you know you are truly alive when you are living in Africa. Now is the time for the industry to persuade the outside world this is still the case, and thus turn 2015 into the year of the African tourist renaissance.
Graham Boynton has written for numerous newspapers and magazines, including Vanity Fair, Esquire and Condé Nast Traveler, and was the travel editor of The Daily and Sunday Telegraph between 1998 and 2012. A regular visitor to Africa, where he grew up, his current consultancies include work as media director for the African Travel & Tourism Association (atta.travel). The views expressed in this column are his own.