Covid-19’s third wave dashes hope of tourism revival in east Africa

East Africa’s tourism sector has been hit hard by Covid-19
East Africa’s tourism sector has been hit hard by Covid-19
Image: AP Photo/Ben Curtis/File
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It is the high season across east Africa’s national parks. But for the second year in a row, the plains remain unusually quiet.

Despite hopes of a revival in the tourism sector after a difficult 2020, the region’s industry is still struggling to get back on its feet due to a third wave of Covid-19 sweeping across the continent.

A recent UN report shows that East Africa’s tourism decline will contribute to a loss of 9.3% to the region’s economy this year. It will be the second most impacted region in the world, after Central America, and the worst affected in Africa.

East Africa’s tourism hotspots are open to visitors, but Covid-19 measures are keeping them at bay

In June 2021, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, World Health Organization (WHO) regional director for Africa said that the continent had seen “a rapid increase in the number of cases.” Uganda and Rwanda have implemented lockdowns, while a curfew remains in place in Kenya.

Despite this, East Africa remains open to international travel. However, news of the lockdown has kept tourists at bay. The Hotel Owners Association in Uganda said nearly 90% of bookings were canceled since it was announced. The country has also banned intra-district travel and put in place additional measures that will essentially curb domestic tourism.

Governments across Europe have enforced strict travel restrictions to East Africa. The entire region features on the UK’s ‘red list’, meaning tourists returning from East Africa must undertake a mandatory hotel quarantine for 10 days. The UK is a significant market for the region’s tourism industry.

“We need Kenya to be removed from those red lists because people are scared there is a serious outbreak,” Mike Macharia, the chairman of the Kenya Association of Hotelkeepers and Caterers, told Quartz.  “We vaccinated all our key staff. We have created safe zones within the tourism industry. Tourists are telling us they want to come but their countries are telling them not to.”

East Africa’s tourism workers are struggling to survive

This recent wave is another blow for the sector, which suffered heavily during the first outbreak in 2020.

A report by the East African Business Community (EABC) revealed that 2.1 million jobs were lost, while partner states estimate they lost international tourism receipts to the tune of $4.8 billion.

This has a significant impact on the region’s overall economy, which relies heavily on tourism. It  contributes on average 10% to the GDP of the six East African Community (EAC) partner states and 7% to employment.

While many hoped that 2020 would spell the end of the slump, the third wave has dashed hopes of a resurgence in 2021. Meanwhile in Europe, a faster vaccine campaign has opened borders and countries are cashing in from inter-continental travel, with intra-European trips expected to account for over 80% of Europe’s travel in 2021.

After 18 months of slow business, East Africa’s tourism workers are now struggling to survive.

“It is the high season  now, but it does not feel like it,” said Ivan Kakooza, the director of Fravan Safaris, a tour company in Uganda. “Last year, we were in high spirits that 2021 would bring good business. It took us by surprise that things turned upside down again.”

In Tanzania, low visitor numbers since March 2020 has led to many tourism businesses closing. “I saw many companies sell off their assets and others have struggled to make their loan repayments,” shares Edward Ndakie, the owner of Safari Partners, based in Morogoro, Tanzania.

“It’s been challenging,” he said. “Covid-19 has brought a lot of poverty. Many people were getting money directly and indirectly from tourism. But for the past year and a half, there has been nothing.”

There are some slow signs of revival in East Africa’s tourism industry

However, despite the industry lagging, numbers are higher than 2020 due to the global vaccine rollout. The Bank of Tanzania said that services receipts increased to $189.6 million in May 2021, compared to $109.7 million in the previous year – attributed to an increase in tourism.

In Kenya, a faster vaccination drive, which has seen over 1.5 million people vaccinated, and an early lockdown from March to May 2021, has brought hope for this year’s high season.

“Two months ago, things looked bad, but bookings are coming in fast for August and September. Some hotels are full,” said Glen Rawlings, Director of Southern Cross Safaris in Kenya. “In 2020, we had to reduce our staff numbers by half but now we are starting to call them back.”

Although there are signs of recovery, the economic impact of the tourism industry has also left the wildlife and conservation sector in a vulnerable state.

A combination of reduced funding from tourists and lower management capacity from budget cuts and restrictions have created a “perfect storm” to harm conversation efforts. As a result the region has seen steady trafficking rates.

Vaccine rollout will impact East Africa’s tourism numbers

The vaccine rollout will play a key role in the recovery of the sector. The UNWTO assumes that countries with low vaccination rates will likely see a 75% reduction in tourism, while countries with high vaccination rates will see a 37% reduction.

Vaccination schemes across Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda are well underway. While in Tanzania, the new president’s recent U-turn on the Covid-19 policy will instill more confidence in travelers. Under President Hassan, Tanzania has started reporting statistics on the virus for the first time in over a year and has ordered vaccines.

East African governments are introducing incentives to attract holidaymakers. In Tanzania, the national park authority, TANAPA, has halted the plans to increase park entrance fees, while Uganda reduced their prices for gorilla trekking permits.

In July 2021, The East African Community (EAC) revealed their plan to revitalize the sector, which includes bolstering domestic and regional tourism. “The signs this year are still bleak given the recurrent waves of the pandemic,” said Dr. Peter Mathuki, the EAC Secretary General.  “It has resulted in unpredictable measures and restrictions by governments around the world.”

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