Nigel Vere Nicoll is Chief Executive of Atta, The African Travel & Tourism Association, which serves travel companies in the African travel sector in 37 countries around the world. For more information visit www.atta.travel.
More than twenty years ago, Queen Elizabeth II, in a speech marking the 40th anniversary of her accession, described the closing of that year as an ‘annus horribilis’. That phrase could aptly describe 2015.
Let me explain: by the autumn of 2014 reports confirmed substantial cancellations across the continent, while the industry struggled to comprehend the reasoning behind it. Yes, we were well aware of the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa. But this epidemic was more than 3000 miles away from the game parks, beaches and cities of eastern and southern Africa. However, we had not counted on unprecedented and ill-informed media hype, which gave the mistaken impression that all four corners of the continent were at risk. International print and news titles were quick to grab the headlines around the world, attracting attention by painting negative stereotypes of ‘darkest Africa’, embellished with the ever-rolling strapline, ‘Breaking News: Ebola Fear Spreads’.
Social media also took the bait, spreading a false impression that there was a massive health risk in travelling to East and southern Africa. In reality, the outbreak was thousands of miles away in West Africa. Although Africa is vast, tourists and media nonetheless have a tendency to conceive of it as one country rather than a continent with 54 different nations.
As a result, tourism was seriously damaged and the sector’s revenue dropped by more than 30 per cent. The irony was that not one single tourist in East or southern Africa was touched by Ebola. Yet the World Bank has estimated that disruptions have cost the region half a billion dollars in the past year, putting thousands of jobs at risk.
Unfortunately, I believe that we did not learn from the lessons of the SARS outbreak in 2003, which followed a similar pattern. Looking back to the start of the crisis in 2014, the alarm in the market stemmed from misperceptions as to how Ebola can be contracted and Africa’s geography, namely the location of the affected countries in relation to the principal tourist destinations in eastern and southern Africa. Indeed, Madrid, Paris and London are closer to Sierra Leone, which was at the heart of the outbreak. Fear and ignorance were, without doubt, the significant drivers of the collapse of tourism.
Given this coverage, you won’t be surprised to hear that, according to a new study covering the US and Europe and undertaken by the Chief Marketing Officer Council’s GeoBranding Center and AIG Travel, one in four travellers has changed their plans in the past year due to safety, security or health concerns.
So how can we avoid another ‘annus horribilis’? I believe that we need to get the media on our side, as we have failed again and again to get our story across in times of crisis. Our industry, which is made up of so many disciplines, travel agents, tour operators, accommodation and transport suppliers, is fragmented, large and complex. But with this in mind, we must create a central hub to handle, collate and disseminate information. The aim must be to build a single focal point where media meets the tourism industry to gather the facts that they can then distribute to their global audience. African tourism must speak with one voice: the consolidated voice of Africa.