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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
“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.