The Effect of COVID – 19 on African Tourism

By Dilyara Shantayeva – Art in Tanzania internship

Tourism is an important economic sector for Africa. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation, Africa received 71.2 million international arrivals in 2019 amounting to about US$ 40 billion in revenue. This represents a 4 percent growth in arrivals over that of the previous year. Tourism has witnessed sustained growth on the continent as governments continued to pursue it as a viable economic option due to its contribution in terms of jobs, revenue, foreign exchange, and infrastructure.

Africa is increasingly becoming a preferred destination for many international tourists looking to enjoy its sunny beaches, ecotourism products, national parks and safaris and exotic culture and food. Unfortunately, the projected growth of between 3 to 5% in international arrivals for the continent cannot be realised: like every continent, Africa’s tourism industry is shattered, and the inflow of the tourist dollar has ceased due to the impact of COVID-19. The highly contagious spread of the coronavirus ultimately stopped most of the traveling to many touristic destinations is still causing many discrepancies these days as well. This article will overview the main effects of COVID – 19 on African tourism.

“We live in very challenging and uncharted waters at the moment,” says Nigel Vere Nicoll, President of the African Travel and Tourism Association (ATTA), an organization which he founded 25 years ago. ATTA has around 700 members in Sub-Saharan Africa, split relatively evenly between buyers – such as tour operators – and suppliers (hotels, lodges, and transportation companies). In the interview with the journalist from the Africa Outlook, he mentioned that one of the biggest problems currently facing the industry is confusion over cancelled bookings. Travellers who’ve already booked the tours and tickets and the situation have changed very rapidly, they have loads of questions concerning refunds, re-bookings, and other related issues.

He also mentioned the economic issues that Africa had encountered during the pandemics: “Take one small boutique lodge in Africa with, say, 10 rooms,” he says. “They would employ about 50 people, but their extended suppliers – so, the person who does the laundry, or brings in the eggs every day – probably equates to around 1,000 extra people. If that lodge packs up, then 1,000 people have no income.”

There are also other, less obvious effect: In Kenya, for example, many conservancies have been established on land belonging to the Masai Mara peoples. They remove their grazing cattle from the land and lease it to organisations building safari lodges that conserve it for wildlife, the revenue from tourists providing an income to the Masai people.

“That model works fine until there’s a nonessential travel warning, and then no money is coming in and they can’t pay the Masai,” Vere Nicoll adds. “One my closest friends has just been to see one of the chiefs and explained the situation, telling him ‘we’re going to go on paying you out of reserve funds, but we don’t know how long this is sustainable for.’

“If this goes on for a long time, all this work on conservancies will be put in jeopardy, because if the Masai don’t get revenue then their livelihood is at stake.”

So, what is the solution? How can the African tourism industry keep going?

Vere Nicoll believes the answer lies in domestic tourism. As there are such low levels of COVID-19 within many African countries now, travel is still possible.

“It’s not possible to cross borders within Africa, because they all have the same warning on, but it is possible to create domestic tourism,” he explains. “In fact, this is an amazing opportunity to create cashflow for survival with the local market. Kenya, for example, has a huge number of Europeans living within the country, who could become domestic tourists.”

Another saving grace is that it’s currently low season in East Africa, so tourism companies and hotels in that area anticipate having fewer customers this time of year. Some smaller safari lodges are even closed, ready to reopen for summer’s high season.

“What we are hoping is that tourism will recover in the English autumn, and they’ll have the chance to get some bookings in the late season, leading up until Christmas,” Vere Nicoll says. “If it lasts any longer, we’re in a totally different ball game.”

However, he concludes our conversation on a note of optimism. “The bottom line is that the tourism industry is very resilient. It always has been. We’ve been through many problems over the years, especially in eastern and southern Africa, and we’ve always come through in the end.

“I think the industry will come out of it much stronger. A lot of relationships will be built up. And I think that once the coronavirus goes, if it’s a short-term thing, then the industry will bounce back tremendously.”

In general, the tourism industry has been heavily impacted by the pandemic as people’s economic lives are halted and their freedom of movement curtailed. Chiefly among these impacts on African economies is the reduction in foreign income. With the closure of the world economy and the associated redundancy as well as closure of international borders, international tourist inflows into Africa have ceased.

The United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) indicates that international tourist arrivals to Africa decreased by 35% between January to April 2020 as a result of the pandemic. Countries such as Gambia, South Africa, Egypt, Kenya, and a host of others that are heavily dependent on the expenditure of international tourists have witnessed dwindled injections of tourism-based foreign income. Equally, and associated with this, is the closure of tourism businesses. Tourism businesses are forced to close either because of internal measures to help stop the spread of the coronavirus or directly because of the absence of tourists.

Either way, the closure of tourism businesses such as hotels, attractions, travel and tour operations, food and beverage services, and other support businesses have resulted in massive job losses across the tourism industry in Africa. Both direct jobs that are primarily targeted at serving tourists and those in the value chain have all been impacted.

Ultimately, the closure of tourism businesses coupled with massive job losses have resulted in the reduction of corporate and individual income tax revenue to African governments and thereby affected their abilities to provide the required public services and infrastructure. Such tourism-dependent African economies are therefore compelled to increase their borrowing, thereby spiraling their debt burden and potentially perpetuating their poverty cycle. For instance, South Africa, a country with a significant tourism sector, for the first time in its history took a loan of US$ 4.3 billion from the IMF. Interestingly, this amount is less than its annual foreign income from the tourism industry.

Similarly, countries like Ghana that has tourism as its fourth foreign income earner, contributing more than over US$ 1 billion a year, have contracted a US$ 1 billion loan facility from the IMF. This has become an all too familiar story across the continent with many African countries with significant tourism industries losing out on tourist dollars.

While tourist dollars have stopped flowing to the continent, for the time being, there is hope, with the UNWTO indicating that confidence in recovery in Africa remains very strong compared to other world regions.

To achieve this, there is the need for the gradual easing of lockdown measures, including the opening of international borders, to allow the inflow of international tourists. Also, African governments should institute safety protocols to guarantee the safety of both tourists and employees at the ports of entry into individual countries, and at tourism facilities and attractions. And African governments through their national tourism organizations can begin to bundle their tourism products to reduce the cost of travel.

The bundling can be done to cut profit margins on individual tourism elements and therefore reduce the overall cost. This will also have the advantage of compelling tourists to visit many attractions and stay longer and thereby spend more at destinations. Tourism facilities can also offer discounts or complementary services to entice customers, especially domestic tourists at the initial stages of re-opening.

Further, there should be aggressive marketing of African destinations in international circles to re-assure Western and, to some extent, Chinese tourists about visiting Africa once more. Lastly, African governments can offer tax exemptions and holidays to tourism businesses to help them recover from the consequences of the pandemic. Such tax holidays and exemptions will help them grow back their earnings into their businesses to recover and grow in the short term.

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