Tourism Falling Off in Africa, Far Beyond the Ebola Zone

A recent surge in travel to Africa has come to a grinding halt.
View Images

A health care worker dons protective gear before entering an Ebola treatment center in Sierra Leone earlier this month. The U.S. State Department has issued a travel warning about non-essential trips to the country.


At first, the travel agent couldn't believe it.

Thirty members of an extended family from Long Island, New York, had booked an African safari for July 2015. The cost: $197,000.

Then, the Ebola epidemic. Panicked, the family recently decided to delay the trip until 2016.

Even though their destination, South Africa, is more than 3,000 miles from West Africa's Ebola zone. And even though the tour operator charged them a $20,500 fee for rescheduling in 2016.

"People are being a little bit unreasonable—they're treating Ebola like the modern version of the plague," says Julia Jacobo of Cook Travel, the New York-based agency that booked the trip. "People don't want to go to Africa at all. They don't distinguish East Africa from West Africa, even though it's a gigantic continent." (See "Mapping the Spread of Ebola.")

In West Africa, Ebola has killed more than 4,900 people, with more than 13,700 cases reported, almost all in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, according to the World Health Organization. The WHO warns that there could be as many as 10,000 new cases a week in the region by year's end. (See "Tracking a Serial Killer: Could Ebola Mutate to Become More Deadly?")

But there have been no confirmed Ebola cases in East Africa, or in most of the continent.

A map on the website SafariBookings.com, the largest online booking site for African safaris, shows distances from the Ebola outbreak area to other parts of the world, noting that "East and southern Africa, where most safaris are conducted, are just as far from the outbreak area as Europe or South America."

Not to mention that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health agencies have repeatedly said that Ebola is not an airborne disease and that only those who come in contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person can catch it.

But such messages don't appear to be swaying thousands of leisure and business travelers who were planning or considering travel to Africa—anywhere in Africa—and who are now postponing or canceling their trips.

About half of the more than 500 safari operators surveyed by SafariBookings.com in late September reported declines in bookings of 20 to 70 percent.

Small Risk, Big Continent

Trip cancellations and new flight restrictions couldn't have come at a worse time for Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa welcomed a record 33.8 million tourists in 2012, according to the first World Bank regional report on the industry, issued last year.

The World Tourism Organization's 2014 global travel report said tourism to Africa rose 6 percent in 2013 and had predicted a 4 to 6 percent bump this year, though no one is expecting that anymore.

The world's second largest continent is bigger than Europe, the United States, and China combined, but since the virus was declared a global health threat in August, business and leisure travelers have tended to view Africa as a single country that they are determined to avoid.

"It's very serious," said Wouter Verger, founder and managing director of SafariBookings.com. "We have seen impacts like this, but it's usually confined to a single country."

Kenya, for instance, saw a drop-off in tourism after last year's terrorist attack in a Nairobi shopping mall that left at least 67 dead.

A WHO warning in August that Kenya was a "high-risk" country for the disease was enough to convince Korean Air to suspend flights there.

Kenya's Indian Ocean beaches, meanwhile, are deserted, and high-end safari operators report sluggish reservations.

"Some people are saying, 'I need to figure out whether in three months' time, is it going to be spreading? Will it be in Tanzania or Kenya by the time I get there?'" said Edwin Gayla, a managing partner at Asia to Africa Safaris.

Tanzania's hotels have reported a 30 percent drop in business, while 2015 bookings have plummeted 50 percent.

"August was projected to be our best month ever, but it became the worst of the last two years," wrote João Oliveira, whose company runs tours in Tanzania, in East Africa, in a comment on SafariBooking.com.

A report last month by the Tourism Business Council of South Africa found that 55 percent of tour operators, travel agents, and other tourist-dependent companies have seen a negative impact on their business.

In North Africa, Cook Travel reports canceled trips to Egypt and Morocco, which has asked to put off the African Cup of Nations soccer tournament scheduled there for early 2015. Moroccan organizers cite Ebola fears among the hundreds of thousands of soccer fans expected to attend.

Warnings, Restrictions, Fear

West Africa has been even harder hit.

The U.S. State Department has issued travel warnings about non-essential trips to Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. Many other countries have instituted travel bans into and out of West African nations, even though the WHO has said that travelers are at low risk for infection. (See "Amid Ebola Panic, Separating Fact From Fiction.")

A poll conducted by the Association of Corporate Travel Executives at a recent global conference in Copenhagen found that 41 percent of attendees said their companies had restricted travel to Sierra Leone, Guinea, Senegal, or Nigeria. Nearly half supported a travel ban to Ebola-hit countries in West Africa.

"Companies are liable for the welfare of business travelers, to the point of minimizing every practical risk," said Greeley Koch, the group's executive director.

South Africa has imposed a travel ban for noncitizens arriving from high-risk countries in West Africa.

The world's fastest growing tourism market, Asia, has seen huge fall-off in interest in and travel to Africa, including to regions far outside the Ebola zone. Many Asians remember the 2003 SARS outbreak and the more recent and deadly H1N1 pandemic. (Related: "Graphic: As Ebola's Death Toll Rises, Remembering History's Worst Epidemics.")

At Asia to Africa Safaris, which counts Hong Kong and Singapore as its biggest markets, 10 percent of clients have canceled or put off travel to Africa. Many are couples walking away from $2,000 deposits for trips to southern and eastern Africa, far from the affected region.

Asia to Africa Safaris's Gayla says that he's never seen anything like it. Diseases such as malaria and yellow fever may be more widespread in Africa, but "people are not really concerned about those things because you're able to get shots or malaria tablets," he says.

"With this disease, it spooks people because there's no found cure yet."

Comment on This Story