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Africa's tourism industry in ruins

Cai Nebe
May 13, 2020

Africa's tourism industry has been hard hit by coronavirus lockdowns. Overnight, hotel bookings were canceled, safaris postponed and cultural tours abandoned. DW meets operators struggling to stay afloat.

An open-topped Land Rover with tourists in the Serengeti National Park
Scenes of open-topped safari vehicles have disappeared from the Serengeti National Park as daily visitors have plummeted from the thousands to the a few dozenImage: picture-alliance/dpa/F. von Poser

At the beginning of 2020, Africa's tourism sector looked set for a lucrative year. The continent had the world's second fastest growing tourism industry and was projected to rake in billions of dollars. But when COVID-19 struck, tourists stopped coming and the industry ground to a sudden halt.

Tourism across the continent has always relied on international travelers. But now, a dangerous combination of national lockdowns, a tiny local tourism customer base, and an industry aimed at high-paying foreign visitors means Africa's tourism industry may not adapt quickly enough to avoid collapse.

Tours along Ghana's forts and castles have ceased, the safari vehicles that normally prowl East Africa's Serengeti in the hunt for the perfect wildlife photograph are standing still, and luxury camps in Botswana's Okavango Delta are gathering dust.

Small businesses suddenly without an income

In 2019, Ghana raked in $1.9 billion (€1.75 billion) from tourism, which contributed over 5.5% of GDP in the West African nation.

Ghanaian tour operator Moses Femi Gbeku has been stuck in neutral for weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic.

"I had my last tour just before COVID-19 actually became a pandemic, and after that I had about six tours canceled. For these tours, people came from the US, Canada and European countries," said Gbeku, who runs the Accra-based Mofeg Travel and Tours.

The company normally operates seven tours a year in several West African countries – the cancellation of six tours means his agency is out of business for the rest of the year and at least 20 tour guides and other staff are jobless.

"Directly, you have affected twenty people, indirectly you can multiply that. You are going into 200 if they are feeding at least ten people at a time," Gbeku told DW.

Read more: Lifting Africa's COVID-19 lockdown measures poses problems

Moses Gbeka from Afrika Mofeg Travel and Tour
Moses Femi Gbeku from Mofeg Travel and Tours fears for his company after six of his seven annual tours were cancelled as a result of fears surrounding the coronavirus Image: DW/I. Kaledzi

It's a similar story at N8tive Restaurant and Bar located not far from Ghana's Kotoka International Airport in Accra. The vast majority of the bar's clientele is usually foreigners made up of a mix of tourists, business visitors or foreigners working in Ghana.

Now these customers are mostly gone. Bar owner Kwame Bekoe says revenue has been hard-hit.

"The number of travelers started to reduce, especially those coming into Ghana but also because those working around [the area] have begun to work from home," Bekoe said.

To remain afloat, Bekoe is now focusing on gaining local customers. Home and office deliveries are top priority, he told DW.

Surprisingly, Bekoe has not sacked any of his workers yet. One of his employees, Samuel Kwaku Yeboah, is grateful for the job.

"It has rekindled our love towards the company. When you see your friends are losing their jobs and you still can keep yours, it is a blessing, so you need to make it work," Yeboah told DW.

Conservation in peril

Conservation efforts across Africa are also suffering. On the shores of Lake Victoria, the Uganda Wildlife Conservation Education Center traditionally draws visitors eager to see its lions, giraffes, white rhinos and chimpanzees. The facility holds more than 291 individual animals from 52 species, all of which need feeding and veterinary care.

Read more: Wangari Maathai: The outspoken conservationist

But Uganda's lockdown measures have forced the center to close to visitors. The consequences are serious: the center's revenue from tourists has dwindled to a shortfall of about $50,000. The wildlife center could close for good if funding isn't found quickly.

"The foreign guests would come for research, they could come for specialized programs, long stay volunteering, internships... They are no longer coming. The tourists were paying 10 dollars and in some cases 70 dollars," Executive Director James Musinguzi said.

Chimpanzees play in the Uganda Wildlife Conservation Education Center
The chimpanzees of the Uganda Wildlife Conservation Education Center near Kampala still need feeding and veterinary care, despite no visitors paying to see themImage: DW/F.Yiga

Musinguzi also worries visitors will stay away from the center even after the lockdown is lifted because of fears that the center's animals could carry viruses similar to the novel coronavirus, which scientists believe originated with wild animals.

"Remember, they have developed some phobias towards wild animals. There is going to be a phobia and distancing from wild animals by people," he said.

Prolonged low season

Across Lake Victoria, Tanzania is famous for its safari industry – from lions lounging in the Serengeti to elephants ambling through the Ngorongoro Crater and flamingos on Lake Manyara.

Except now, there are no safari vehicles brimming with Western tourists to see them. For safari operator Elia Richard from Into Africa, the coronavirus has hit hard – 99% of his clients are international.    

"The difference with this pandemic in comparison to what we have seen before, like Ebola or terrorism in Kenya, it's highly dependent on international tourists. Our source markets have been affected," Richard said.

Operators like Richard are also caught between clients wanting their money back, and accommodation not wanting to give up deposits. This has caused serious cash flow problems.

"You come back to tell the client: 'Can we give you a credit for the future?' They tell you: 'we are not sure about the future anymore so I want my money back'," he said.

Into Africa attracts between 1,000 and 2,000 clients a year with some paying up to $7,000 per person for a safari. That's before tourists pump money into the local economies when they buy souvenirs, give tips or pay park fees.

Because Tanzania has not imposed a lockdown, and continues with a 'business as usual' approach, local tourism operators aren't eligible for government assistance.

How COVID-19 has destroyed Africa's tourism industry

For now, without tourists or income on the horizon, Into Africa must somehow survive.

"I don't see us recovering this year. We are talking more about 2021, and only if the economies in the source markets [US and Europe] don't go into a recession," Richard said.

Guides, meanwhile, have had an easier time adjusting, since Tanzania's tourism numbers naturally fluctuate dramatically between high and low seasons. Many have a second business or are involved in farming.

But the car mechanics, hotels or local aviation companies that rely on tourism companies like Into Africa for business are affected, said Richard.

Tour guides wait for clients in Tanzania in front of safari vehicles
With implosion of the safari industry due to COVID-19, many tour guides have had to resort to alternative jobs for an incomeImage: Elia Richard

Over-reliance on foreign tourists

For Kobby Mensah at the University of Ghana Business School, this pandemic highlights the real weakness of Africa's tourism industry.

"We are overly dependent on the West, and that in itself is a disaster, as COVID has actually shown. Now there is an increasing call for building tourism, not even just domestic tourism, but across African countries," Mensah said.

That many of the tourism companies are small businesses makes it even more difficult for them to survive a global crisis.

"A lot of big corporations have credit facilities that they can rely on. If we look at small and medium enterprises [operating in the tourism sector], the majority of them may be hand to mouth or one-man operations," Mensah said. 

"When it comes to Africa, most governments pay little attention to small businesses," he added.

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