COVID-19: How Africa’s tourism industry is coping without international tourists

COVID-19: How Africa’s tourism industry is coping without international tourists

28/07/2020
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The adverse effects of Covid-19 on Africa’s tourism industry are now plainly evident in almost every country on the continent. The pandemic has frozen even the continent’s major tourist attractions like gorilla safaris, game viewing in vast savannah parks, desert safaris, and cultural and historical tours. The lack of foreign tourists due to international travel restrictions to control the spread of Covid-19 has left the tourism industry in Africa limping given the loss of revenue to support the industry. The pandemic has left many stakeholders in the African tourism industry without income due to loss of jobs and these include tour operators, hotel operators, tour guides, those employed by tourism agencies, among others.

In response and search for recovery, a few countries on the continent are starting to open up airports to allow international flights again. However, many are also still stuck in a dilemma whether or not to open up. There is fear that if they open up too fast may lead to a new outbreak of Covid-19 through foreign tourists who are likely to come from countries that have been heavily hit with the pandemic like USA and Europe. Others argue that leaving the airports closed for too long will lead to lead to losing more livelihoods and collapse of the industry.

The tourism industry has been such a significant component in all African economies with the sector contributing 9 percent to the continent’s economy. According to the UN’s World Tourism Organization, 71.2 million tourists visited Africa in 2019 while the sector employed nearly 25 million people across the continent. The pandemic has already taken toll on such gains with the African Union reporting that the continent has already lost over $55bn in revenues so far.

Tour operators across the continent report that the pandemic has forced them to cancel hundreds of planned tour trips including those targeting wildlife safaris, holidays and cultural events.

Way to recovery

So far, only Tunisia and Tanzania, known for their breathtaking national parks and beaches respectively are the only major countries on the continent that have reopened their international borders and airports to welcome foreign tourists. Other popular destinations on the continent like Morocco, Mauritius and Uganda have allowed local tourists to visit national parks but international visitors are still not allowed in. Kenya, Rwanda and Seychelles are planning to resume international passenger flights on 1 August but visitors will have to first test negative of Covid-19 in order to be permitted to visit their tourist destinations.

According to Clare Akamanzi, chief executive officer of the Rwanda Development Board (RDB), the country estimates her tourist revenues to shrink by between 50% and 70% in 2020. However, she says that they still have hope and highlight that those figures will depend on what happens in the last few months of the year after reopening of the airports. In 2019, Rwanda reported her highest tourism annual growth after attracting over 1.63 million visitors and earning $498m in revenue. Mountain gorillas are Rwanda’s major tourist attraction with thousands of travelers flying into the country to enjoy gorilla safaris to see these rare endangered primates in Volcanoes National Park.

Famous tourist destinations on the continent that are heavily hit by Covid-19 like South Africa are likely not to host foreign tourists again in this calendar year. For South Africa, it is estimated that the country may take two to three years before returning her 2019 levels of 10.2 million tourists. The widely shared news story at the beginning of the pandemic that falsely claimed that the high numbers of coronavirus infections in Cape Town were caused by foreign tourists did not help the situation at all. However, tourism authorities in Cape Town said the first cases of coronavirus in the area were majorly imported by South Africans who were returning from abroad.

Unclear future

Many stakeholders in African tourism business dread predicting the future of the sector given the volatility of the virus although majority admit that it will be different. They stress that that the pandemic should lead to change to some dynamics in the tourism sector like digitization. It will facilitate the shift of traditional marketing efforts to target new diverse audiences including the diaspora market, regional collaboration between destinations, air connectivity and making an intra-Africa travel visa.

The new normal

Some African countries like Namibia, Rwanda and Kenya are adapting to new methods like virtual tours that support the work-from-home format to appeal to a young population. Other adaptations include reducing human contacts for tourists at hotels, resorts and other properties as well as practicing social distancing make them feel safer while on their safari holidays on the continent.

Persevering the tough times

Some business within the tourism sector in Africa like hotels have adopted new working methods in order to survive the pandemic. Thee include reducing working hours, temporary layoffs and cutting costs in other departments of their businesses.

There is a common belief among stakeholders of Africa’s tourism industry that domestic tourism will be the first to recover as countries across the continent gradually ease lockdowns.