Coronavirus: East Africa’s tourism sector takes a beating

Rahul Patidar used to receive at least 50 monthly bookings to his Saffron Beach Bistro boutique hotel in Entebbe, a holiday beach town located about 35 kilometres southwest of Uganda’s capital Kampala. But when the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) broke out in mainland China in December 2019, that number dipped to a paltry 10.

“In the past two months, all bookings to our hotel have come from locals yet the biggest percentage of our customers are usually guests from abroad, especially the US,” says Patidar, the hotelier whose exotic lakeside property has been welcoming guests since March 2018.

Such is the situation in East Africa’s tourism sector, which has recently been hit hard following the dreaded virus that has ravaged China and more than 50 other countries across the globe.

In the recent past, most eastern African countries have seen an upsurge in international arrivals, making tourism the leading source of foreign exchange for the region. But now that boom seems to be coming to a screeching halt.

The virus, which has so far claimed over 3,000 lives, was on January 30 declared a public health emergency of international concern by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Latest figures from the United Nations health body indicate that more than 92,000 cases of the virus have been recorded globally. But even though the majority of the casualties have been reported in China, the virus has now spread to most parts of the world, including northern and western Africa.

Fortunately for eastern Africa, no victim has been reported yet — but the precautionary measures being taken by most countries have taken a heavy toll on the region’s tourism sector.

To put this into perspective, the fact that some airlines have suspended routes to some of the affected countries means that travel from those countries to eastern Africa, like to other parts of the world, is now restricted.

The International Air Transport Authority (IATA) predicts a reduction of 4.7% of global air traffic — the steepest since the 2008/2009 global financial crisis. IATA recently warned that travel bans resulting from the coronavirus outbreak could cost airlines more than $29 billion.

“People are now scared of boarding planes simply because of the coronavirus; you cannot be sure if the person sitting next to you is infected or not,” says Patidar.

And the spread of the virus is not only hurting air travel and hotel occupancy. Tour operators are also grappling with plummeting demand for adventure and holiday trips as tourists are cancelling trips and international tourism fairs and conferences are being shelved for the first time decades.

“ITB Berlin has been cancelled and that’s a big blow to the industry because that’s usually the time for sealing deals between wholesalers and destination management companies,” said Amos Wekesa, founder and CEO of Great Lakes Safaris in Uganda.

The famed tour operator goes on: “Tourism has been hit badly world over but I least expected Uganda to face the same challenges. This (2020) was already a great year for tourism because our small numbers were looking up.”

Well, not anymore.

The China effect

Statistics show that there are over two million Chinese people who live and work in Africa, while about 80,000 African businessmen and students are residents in China.

And with Africa now said to be the world’s fastest-urbanising region and China being the continent’s biggest trade partner, there is a big risk of a coronavirus outbreak — and especially eastern Africa.

The World Health Organisation recently identified 13 African countries that are of higher risk due to their direct links and a larger number of travellers to and from China. They include Algeria, Kenya, Angola, Ethiopia, Ghana, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast, Mauritius, Tanzania, Uganda, Nigeria, South Africa and Zambia. 

But latest statistics from the WHO indicate that the six African countries that have confirmed coronavirus cases are in western and northern Africa, including Egypt, Morocco, Senegal, Tunisia, Algeria and Nigeria.

And if the virus continues to spread in Africa, there are fears that it could cause more mayhem than it has caused in Asia or Europe due to the continent’s “ineffective” healthcare systems.

But governments have assured their citizens that they are doing all they can to prevent the virus.

In Tanzania, the ministry of health has identified quarantine centres in all regions of the country and, according to the vast country’s health minister Ummy Mwalimu, his government has stockpiled thermometers and over 2,000 health workers have been trained to handle coronavirus cases.

North of Tanzania, Uganda’s Ministry of Health recently reported that hundreds of people who had arrived in the country through Entebbe International Airport had been quarantined but no cases had been confirmed.

Jane Aceng, the country’s health minister, said the two health facilities that have been designated as isolation centres in Entebbe are “well prepared” and “adequately equipped” in case of an outbreak of coronavirus. A total of 11 ambulances, she said, had been placed on standby to transport individuals suspected of carrying the virus.

On Tuesday, March 3, rumours were circulating on social media that there was a confirmed coronavirus case in Uganda, which compelled the health ministry and other concerned organisations such as the Association of Uganda Tour Operators (AUTO) to issue statements denying such.

“There has been misleading information going around this morning about a confirmed coronavirus case in Uganda. The Ministry of Health (MOH) has issued a statement communicating that there’s no case of the virus in Uganda. The MoH remains on very high alert!” AUTO said in an email to its members. “…we are calling upon members to remain vigilant and stick to only reliable sources for updates.”

Elsewhere, neighbours Rwanda and Kenya said they have set up laboratories that can test suspects and provide results within three hours or less. “We have experts from Germany who have been training our people,” Dr Jose Nyamusore, division manager of epidemic surveillance and response at the Rwanda Biomedical Centre, told local media recently.

When can tourism expect a rebound?

The knock-on effects of the coronavirus are likely to be felt throughout 2020, according to research firm Tourism Economics. The firm predicts that if the outbreak of the virus lasts longer, it could even take years before the tourism industry bounces back.

But eastern African industry players are optimistic this won’t last for so long.

“We expect travellers to come back very soon. See, the real problem is not the virus as there are no confirmed cases in the region. It’s the rumours doing rounds on social media that are hurting the industry,” says Patidar, whose only foreign guest in the last two months is an American who had booked six months earlier and “because she’s a medical doctor herself”.

And Patidar is not the only one who is optimistic.

“Business is now very slow but we are hopeful it will pick up when the virus is finally contained,” says Chantal Kabagambe, founder and CEO of Eco Community Tours in Kigali, Rwanda.