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‘Epidemic of ignorance’ hits tourism industry

Jobs and revenues are under threat in the tourism industry as Botswana begins to feel the brunt of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa with tourists from USA and Europe unwittingly placing a blanket shun on the whole of Africa.

According to tour operators in the Okavango Delta, arrivals have taken a knock in the second half of the year, while bookings for next year are estimated to have sunk by a sector average of between 30-50 percent.

With the tourism industry being a major economy activity and employer in Botswana, tourism operators blame lack of understanding of African geography by their clients as the affected West African countries are closer to Paris and London than they are to safari hot spots such as Botswana and Zambia.

Botswana is over 5,000 km away from the affected West Africa region.

Grant Woodrow, Managing Director of Wilderness Safaris, told BusinessWeek that about 30 booking cancellations or deferments have been made as a result of Ebola concerns over the past 3-4 months in several of the countries they operate in including Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa.  Woodrow said while the cancellations were significant, they were not their biggest concern at the moment as future bookings had dropped at an alarming rate.

“The reduction in future enquiries for travel in 2015 have caused most alarm in our company and also those of our peers – all across both Southern and East Africa.  Almost industry wide, people are reporting a 30 percent reduction in bookings usually experienced at this time of the year.

“The world at large does not have a good understanding of African geography, the size and extent of the continent, and the degree of sophistication of many of our governments and their health ministries,” he said.  

The tourism industry in Botswana, which targets high-end clientS, contributes about 10 percent to GDP, employing about 35,000 people.

Researchers from the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) estimate travel and tourism activities to have raked in revenue amounting to P4.8 billion in 2013. In the 36-year history of Ebola, there has not been a single case in Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Namibia, Angola, while there have been cases in the USA and Europe (Spain).

When Ebola broke out early this year, Botswana was one of the first countries to

react and banned all travel from affected West African countries to ensure it remained Ebola free.

One of Botswana’s largest Safari operators, Chobe Safaris say they have also felt the effects of the blanket Africa shun by tourism from western countries.

According to Business Development Manager at Chobe, James Wilson, the company has received a number of cancellations due to fear over Ebola on the African continent with some of them having been relatively close to their date of arrival and some 10 to 12 months ahead.

According to Wilson, prospects for next year are gradually becoming gloomier with one of the largest operator in the USA, who claim that safari bookings to Africa are down around 70 percent in the last month, temporarily putting proposed group travel plans to Chobe on hold.

“Our tour operators who provide us with most of our business, have informed us that requests for safaris in East and Southern Africa have dried up considerably and they are feeling the pinch,” he said. In a bid to quash the perceived fears, and promote bookings, tour operators have said they are rallying together with colleagues in the industry to persuade travellers to continue visiting African countries.

“The reality is that Africa is a huge continent and the risk of it spreading towards our country is extremely small. We have decided to offer travellers risk-free booking by waiving cancellation penalties in order to help our tour operators and travel agents who are really struggling due to lack of safari bookings,” added Wilson.

According to UsaToday, a survey of 500 safari tour operators in September found that more than half had experienced drops in bookings ranging from 20 percent to 70 percent since the Ebola outbreak.

“Ironically it’s not the epidemic of Ebola that is the problem. It is the epidemic of ignorance that is the problem. Anyone who would even look at a map would know the tourism industry in most of Africa is suffering from an outbreak of ignorance,” South African Ambassador to USA Ebrahim Rasool told UsaToday.




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