Ebola infects Africa’s economic revival
When Canadian tourist Shauna Magill posted on Facebook that she had arrived safely in Uganda, a friend warned her to beware of “a thing called Ebola”.
Another friend responded to that comment with a Google Maps link that showed Uganda’s capital, Kampala, and Nigeria – the closest nation affected by the Ebola outbreak in west Africa – are 4 900km apart by road.
Misperceptions about Africa’s geography mean that Magill is becoming an exception among the increasing number of travellers who are cancelling trips to the continent as health workers battle to contain the worst Ebola outbreak on record.
Airlines have suspended routes to Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, the countries at the epicentre of the disease. Flight bookings to sub-Saharan Africa might drop as much as 50% over the next four months, according to market research company Euromonitor International.
That would put the brakes on a tourism industry the World Bank says grew at the fastest pace globally over the past three years.
“Many travellers see Africa as one big country,” said Paz Casal, a Spain-based travel and tourism research analyst at Euromonitor.
“Ebola can damage Africa’s economic revival of recent years, resurfacing the continent’s negative stereotypes as a place of disease, famine and poverty,” she added.
Ebola has killed 1 552 people out of 3 069 cases since December. It may shave as much as 1.5 percentage points off growth in the worst-affected economies, according to African Development Bank president Donald Kaberuka.
A separate outbreak has killed as many as 13 people in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the viral illness was first discovered in 1976. Nigeria’s government confirmed yesterday that a doctor in the oil city of Port Harcourt was the sixth Ebola-infected person to die in that country, marking the first fatality outside the commercial hub of Lagos.
Attempts by African governments to increase medical surveillance at airports have not stopped carriers, including British Airways and Kenya Airways, from suspending flights to Ebola-affected nations.
Korean Air this month deferred its route to Kenya, three time zones away from the outbreak, because of the risk of the infection spreading there via services from west Africa.
A frenzy of media reporting after the news last month that two US aid workers were infected with Ebola in Liberia and the cancelled Korean Air flight led to an increased sense of apprehension among travellers to Kenya, according to Jake Grieves-Cook, the spokesperson for the Kenya Tourism Federation.
Kenya is already facing a sluggish year for tourism because of “negative” reports about insecurity following a series of attacks by Islamist militants, said Grieves-Cook.
“As long as there is effective screening and prompt treatment of patients in isolation wards, the situation should be brought under control,” he said.
“The numbers are very low compared with deaths worldwide from malaria, Aids or influenza, which do not cause such a level of panic.”
On August 8, the World Health Organisation declared the west Africa Ebola outbreak a public health emergency. It said the risk of Ebola spreading during air travel was low.
Ebola, which has no proven cure and is transmitted through direct contact with bodily fluids from an infected person, can ravage the body with symptoms that include bleeding from the eyes and ears, vomiting and organ failure. The current outbreak has killed about half of those infected.
In addition to misunderstanding the geography of Africa, visitors are also concerned cash-strapped governments will be unable to contain the spread, according to Thulani Nzima, the CEO of SA Tourism.
Asian tour groups are among those cancelling trips because of the disease, he said, without giving more details.
“A lot of countries out there still paint Africa as a country, rather than a continent,” said Nzima. “They do not believe we have control, that we can manage this.”
According to the World Bank, tourist arrivals to sub-Saharan Africa quadrupled since 1990 to 34 million visitors in 2012.
Hotel chains including Marriott, Starwood and Hilton are opening more locations in Africa to tap the growing middle class of consumers and rising travel levels.
According to the International Monetary Fund, 70% of the fastest-growing economies in the next five years are likely to be in Africa.
Sandra Carvao, the World Tourism Organisation’s chief of communications, said Ebola-affected nations represent less than 0.5% of all international travel to Africa, muting the “direct impact” from the outbreak on tourism.
SCARE Tourists are avoiding trips to Africa because of Ebola fears