Elephant herd on the Serengeti. Photo courtesy Jaymie Bachiu.
Would you postpone a polar bear viewing trip to Churchill, Manitoba if there were a flu outbreak in Miami, Florida? Probably not. Most wouldn’t give it a second thought. But that’s what happened to much of Africa’s tourism industry in the latter half of 2014, when a frenzy of alarming headlines featuring Ebola dominated the news cycle.
As a result, widespread fears over the disease (confined overwhelmingly to West Africa’s Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea) led to a sharp drop in travel to other parts of the continent, like Tanzania and South Africa. Even in light of the fact that London, Paris, and Madrid were closer to the Ebola outbreak than many destinations in Africa—including Nairobi, Arusha, and Cape Town.
With last week’s announcement by the World Health Organization (WHO) that new cases fell sharply in January, the organization has it sights on a goal that had seemed out of reach for much of last year—ending the epidemic, not simply containing it.
Even as fears subside, however, Ebola will have a lasting impact on Africa, from economic losses to wildlife conservation efforts. At the same time, however, tourism and travellers are poised to play a greater role in Africa’s recovery more than ever. For many reasons, there’s never been a better time to visit.
Is it time for travellers to return?
Outside of a few West African countries, the fact is there was little reason to have ever stopped. The 9,000 deaths from Ebola in Africa so far are indisputably tragic, but it is important to keep a sense of relative risk—other diseases are far more worrying. For example, the garden-variety flu will result in about 3–5 million cases of illness this year alone, and about 250,000–500,000 deaths. Still, it’s unlikely that the flu will impact your travel plans this year. The truth is, you’re more likely to get struck and killed by lightning than contracting Ebola. So you can breathe a sigh of relief!
Capturing the Masai Mara. Photo courtesy Leonardo Tamburri.
Given the negligible risk posed by Ebola, why has it cause so much anxiety? According to Dan Gardner, author of the book Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear, our irrational response is to be expected. Our fears often bear little relation to our chances of falling victim, a phenomenon not helped by media coverage, which tends towards the new and shocking rather than the particularly dangerous. It’s human nature—we tend to fear novel and unexpected threats more than common ones.
Ebola Is Affecting Africa’s Wildlife
The World Bank estimated that Ebola has dealt a pretty hard blow to sub-Saharan Africa (losses range from of US$1.1b to US$6.2b). Indeed, the region is highlight dependent on tourism— it accounts for ~US$170b a year (almost 10% of the region’s GDP) and pays the salaries of millions of people. Every tourist who visits the region generates income for eight jobs in industries such as transportation, hospitality, restaurants and agriculture. Less travellers means less opportunities for people in local communities, which has far-reaching implications.
G Adventures local CEO Filbert. Photo courtesy Leonardo Tamburri.
It turns out that Ebola threatens Africa’s wildlife, too—but not in the ways you’d expect. Fewer travellers means fewer park rangers and conservation funds. Travellers who’ve been can tell you how essential tourism dollars are to the well-being of local communities and wildlife because of the far-reaching socio-economic benefits. When dollars drop off, indigenous people turn to other sources of income, like agriculture or even poaching, with devastating results. Fear is killing the safari business that helps pay for the preservation of the continent’s wildlife.
There’s never been a better time to visit Africa
With the number of new Ebola cases reported in the three worst-hit countries falling to their lowest levels since June of last year, it’s clear that efforts at containing the outbreak have been effective.
Indeed, there’s never been a better—or more important—time to visit Africa. Tourism can provide an economic incentive for wildlife conservation preferable to other forms of development that threaten to take hold in the shadow of Ebola. Put simply, travellers can participate directly in the region’s recovery and conservation by returning to do what they love—travelling.
Games on the Masai Mara. Photo courtesy Leonardo Tamburri.
Traditionally, the summer months of July and August are the most popular time of year for travel to East Africa, with pleasant weather and, for safari enthusiasts, the opportunity to witness the awe-inspiring Great Migration. As the fear surrounding Ebola subsides, 2015 promises visitors fewer crowds and less jostling to get that picture perfect shot of one of the ‘Big 5’.
The time is now to get back to adventure’s last great frontier. Africa is calling more urgently than ever.
Its name means “sunny place” in the Berber tongue, but “Africa” may as well be a synonym for “vastness.” A truly massive continent comprising over 20% of the planet’s available land, Africa is home to the world’s largest desert, its longest river, its hottest temperatures, and hundreds of dialects and cultures spread among a billion people. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you Africa — check out our small group adventures here.