COVID-19: East Africa tourism may take years to fully rebound

The year kicked off on a good note. The United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) had earlier forecasted a 5.5 per cent growth for Africa’s tourism sector in 2020. Tour operators, hotels and airlines were all upbeat.

Uganda Airlines had just been rejuvenated after a two-decade hiatus. Ethiopian Airlines had just announced more international routes and a couple more aircraft had recently joined its growing fleet.

Both RwandAir and Kenya Airways had just recently proudly announced the addition of the United States, among other big tourist source markets, to their routes.

As always, the region was gearing up for its annual international tourism fairs, including Kenya’s Magical Kenya Expo, Tanzania’s KiliFair and Rwanda’s Kwita Izina, among others.

Uganda had just showcased to the world what the Pearl of Africa had in store for travellers in 2020 at its annual Pearl of Africa Tourism Expo, which took place in February.

The future looked even brighter for Uganda’s tourism. The overwhelming demand for gorilla trekking permits in the country had lured the Uganda Wildlife Authority into hiking the price from $600-700.

What a great year ahead!

As demand for holiday and business trips spiked in the first two months of 2020, no one could have anticipated the dramatic turn of the tides that awaited the tourism sector. In March, things just fell apart — almost in a blink of an eye — and the 2020 tourism boom came to a screeching halt.

When the new coronavirus emanated from China in December 2019 (hence the moniker COVID-19) and rapidly started spreading to the rest of the world, planes were grounded, hotels were emptied, tourist attractions were avoided, and even the usually bustling streets were deserted. Tourists cancelled trips and international tourism fairs and conferences were shelved for the first time in decades.

By Saturday, March 28, more than 600,000 people worldwide had contracted Covid-19 and 27,862 deaths had been attributed to the disease, according to Johns Hopkins University statistics. Sadly, there seems to be no solution in sight as COVID-19 becomes a household name, devastating humanity in every corner of the world.

In its very short lifetime, coronavirus has wreaked unimaginable havoc on all aspects of life all over the world, catapulting every sector of the global economy into tailspins.

Now many countries worldwide have imposed lockdowns in a bid to halt the spread of the contagious virus. And tourism, like most other sectors of the economy, has subsequently been cast into indefinite oblivion.

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.

Yes, that’s not a typo; you read right! A whopping $29 billion wiped off the airline industry by a small virus called COVID-19.

How long will it take for East Africa’s tourism to rebound?
Some sectors will rebound faster than others when the coronavirus mayhem finally comes to an end. But how will the tourism sector fair in the coming months and years? And most importantly, how long will it take for things to get back to normal?

“I think travel will resume sometime this December,” says Greg Bakunzi, founder of Amahoro Tours and Red Rocks Initiatives for Sustainable Development in Rwanda. “Many travellers will remain in shock for some time. Social distancing will continue to loom large in many travellers’ minds, so it’ll take at least eight months (after the virus is contained) for them to feel free to interact with others again.”

But according to UK-based research firm Tourism Economics, the knock-on effects of the coronavirus are likely to be felt well beyond 2020. The research firm predicts that if the outbreak of the virus lasts longer, we could even go beyond 2022 before the tourism industry fully recovers.

“There are significant downside risks to the 2020 outlook and our quantified downside scenario is becoming increasingly likely,” Tourism Economics said in its latest report.

“Under the downside scenario, global arrivals would fall 17.9% in 2020, 263 million fewer arrivals than in 2019. However, once the situation has stabilised we still expect a rapid recovery since travel demand has proven resilient in bouncing back from downturns in the past. Travel levels are expected to fully recover by 2023,” the research firm adds.

Darius Dos Santos, the proprietor of Kampala-based Darius Tours and Stream Events Africa, thinks that the virus will soon be history due to all the measures “I am seeing governments and international agencies putting in place.”

Still, Dos Santos thinks that the tourism industry in East Africa will take longer to rebound because of the financial woes that will result from the current inactivity as the coronavirus rages.

“Nobody knows how much money our customers (travellers) will be remaining with when all this is over,” he says.

The majority of the customers that most tour operators in East Africa rely on are from Europe, Asia and USA, regions that have been hit the hardest during this year’s coronavirus pandemic.

So, even though East Africa is among the least affected countries by the coronavirus, “The spillover effects of the virus on global demand will still have a large impact. Travel to the African continent is expected to fall 3.5% in 2020, following cumulative growth of 35% in the prior three years,” concludes Tourism Economics.

Lessons from the 2002 SARS coronavirus outbreak
One would say that the current drastic measures being taken by governments in a bid to curb the coronavirus are informed by the lessons learnt from the SARS coronavirus outbreak towards the end of 2002, which also emanated from China.

By the time the SARS coronavirus was contained in mid-2003, the World Health Organisation had confirmed 8,096 cases and 774 deaths in 26 countries across the globe countries. Perhaps this explains why infectious disease experts warned that the new COVID-19 coronavirus could last for several months before it’s contained.

Even though only 26 countries were affected back in 2003, the eight-month SARS coronavirus mayhem led to a 9.4 million drop in international tourist arrivals and a revenue loss of between $30-50 billion.