- - Thursday, October 2, 2014

LOS ANGELES — While Liberia sits on the western seaboard of Africa, bordering the Atlantic Ocean, travel operators to East Africa and Southern Africa are seeing business plummet. Nairobi, Kenya, is more than 3,000 miles from the nearest source of Ebola contact and yet is suffering from misconceptions that lump all areas of the continent together as if it were one country.

Ebola is not only affecting the health of populations in three West African countries, it is taking a toll on many of the economies on the continent in making travel to Africa and tourism operations there synonymous with exposure to the virus.

“Some of our biggest challenges for us are the perceptions of Africa and geographic ignorance. Africa is not a country but a very large continent. While the outbreak of Ebola remains restricted to Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, travel to East Africa is affected,” said Eddie Bergman, executive director for the Africa Travel Association, a New York-based tourism advocacy arm with travel agents, tour operators, airlines and African tourism ministers as members. “We are preparing for an upcoming congress in Uganda and fielding questions and concerns about Ebola – and these are from people who know Africa and sell it.”

While the news of the virus is a fast-moving train and making international headlines every day, certain facts remain. Direct contact with an affected person, alive or deceased, is necessary in order to contract the disease, say experts, who also stress that Ebola is not an airborne virus. And even if direct contact is somehow made (most tourists do not hang around hospitals or morgues, hopefully) the concern can be neutralized with chlorine disinfection, heat, direct sunlight, soaps and detergents, experts add.

Ghana and the Cape Verde archipelago of the West African coast may have the most robust tourism activity of that area, and Ghana has had to cancel all international meetings in Accra. Even trading vessels are hesitant to stop in these parts as crews are scarce and contact fear is high.

Feeling the sting from Ebola

However, some U.S.-based tour operators operating in Southern East Africa across the continent from the outbreak are suffering cancellations and scrambling to figure out proactive measures so that tourism to Africa does not grind to a halt.

“It is having an impact on new inquiries and new bookings. We would guess new inquiries are off by 20 percent in September,” said Dave Herbert, owner of Great Safaris, a luxury tour operator to Southern and East Africa based in Glendale, Calif. “Ebola is a real serious threat if you are planning to visit the infested areas, but otherwise it should not be an issue.
“We are sending information to travel agents who have (Africa-bound) clients with concerns. Still, there is no way of knowing of the clients who have stopped considering Africa for their vacations,” he added.

Other luxury operators claim the pinch of the problem has been light and Ebola concerns have not made a significant impact on bookings.

“While we have had a few guests postpone their safaris until a later date, overall we have not seen any significant impact on bookings to East or Southern Africa. Our guests are frequent international travelers who realize that the Ebola outbreak in West Africa is thousands of miles from Kenya,” said Jean Fawcett, a spokesman for Abercrombie & Kent, which has been running luxury safaris in Africa since 1962. “We’ve been referring callers with questions to the latest from the Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention], which makes it clear how the disease is transmitted – through personal contact with infected people.”

Similarly, Micato Safaris, a luxury operator in Kenya and Tanzania, claims barely a handful of disruptions: two clients who postponed and three who cancelled. “Given our volume this is not even a statistical rounding error,” said Micato spokeswoman Emily Baldwin.

Sheri Fazleabas, president of Michigan-based A&S Journeys, which runs tours to 10 countries in East and Southern Africa, and also to Morocco on the continent’s northwest coast, notes the biggest problem has been new bookings and travel, and calming agents who are not sure whether to sell travel to Africa at this time.

“We are seeing nervousness about this and hear from our agents that their clients are opting for other destinations, but we are really not seeing any cancellations for those travelers who are already booked. But new bookings are definitely being affected by this,” said Ms. Fazleabas. “Tourism in Kenya has its own challenges, but for now, Ebola isn’t one of them for us. But travel agents are certainly concerned, so we are trying to reach these agents and educate them and do what little we can.”

Tourism growth in Africa

The primary tourist centers in sub-Saharan Africa are Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Mauritius, areas that, according to World Bank reports, tourism and the infrastructure support it are relatively developed. However, tourism to Africa and the development of the tourism industry there continues to be impeded by a range of challenges from viable road networks to runaway crime to exasperating immigration policies to political instability and terrorism.

In spite of these drawbacks, 2012 drew 33.8 million visitors to Sub-Saharan Africa with tourism related receipts topping $36 billion and contributing nearly 3 percent to the region’s GDP. Starwood has been active with plans to boost its African portfolio by 30 percent with a dozen new hotels to open over the next two or three years.

Airline cancellations

In the past few weeks, airlines have been cancelling flights to West Africa (Air France, Kenya Airways, Asky Airlines, Arik Air, British Airways and Emirates). Korean Air went as far as cancelling flights to Nairobi. Royal Air Maroc still operates to the region, as does Brussels Airlines. Cancellations have affected point-to-point flights within Africa as well.

“Strategy is lacking right now and the world does not understand this potential if a strategy is not developed,” said Mr. Bergman. “This could go way beyond tourism. And there really has not been sufficient discussion about this issue in the tourism sector so far. When airlines start cancelling routes and countries start closing borders, it may be positive for containing the virus, but it leaves a very negative and lasting impression.”

Lark Gould reports on travel and the travel the industry from Los Angeles. Read her blogs on Larkslist.

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