This week I write to you from a safari lodge in Tanzania, the guilty survivor of another round of pandemic-age travel roulette. Tanzania stayed off the hotel quarantine list, but neighbouring Zambia, along with nine other African nations, are now red-listed and effectively off-limits to travellers. Two of my fellow travellers made frantic phone calls and PCR clinic visits in order to fly home early, because they have a funeral they’d be devastated to miss due to quarantine or flight chaos, should anything change. I decided to roll the dice, trust my contacts (who include a barman in Whitehall) and stay… but I knew I was risking a major work project next week, and potentially complicating my family Christmas in California.
All being well, I fly home from Tanzania tonight, a winner of sorts in this horrendous holiday Squid Game. Friends haven’t been so lucky, and face huge bills when they return home, or have had their holiday hopes crushed again. My friend, Jess, was due to visit her family in South Africa, a long-awaited tearful reunion that now costs an extra £2,000 per person in quarantine costs, pushing it out of their reach.
Back in January I began idly daydreaming about my big post-lockdown adventure, a safari – the sort of soul-stirring wildlife encounter that would make up for that grim winter lockdown and make me feel like myself again, because I am at my best when I travel. I also hoped this was a reasonable and responsible time to encourage travellers back to these hard-hit, tourism-reliant destinations. I spent 18 months weighing up the risks of travel – including the risks of bringing an infection into a vulnerable community. I waited this long to travel internationally, and Tanzania was my first long-haul trip since March 2020… But despite all my efforts to get it right, I still got it wrong.
Obviously the woes of holidaymakers pale in comparison to the crisis facing tourism-reliant communities. It’s a bittersweet time to be with guides and lodge owners in East Africa, who desperately hoped they could start rebuilding their lives and livelihoods once more. In Tanzania, more than one in 10 jobs is in tourism, and in 2020, due to Covid-19, tourism numbers sank to 616,419, compared with 1.5 million in 2019. International vaccine equity was always going to be an issue, a vaccine roll-out compounded by the problems of accessing and educating economically-deprived communities about vaccination.
But it’s heartbreaking to see the efforts made here to combat Covid and reassure tourists – sanitation stations that lions in safari parks scratch up against, badges bearing one’s vaccination status, slick PCR testing for tourists, social distancing (safari holidays are naturally socially distanced, outdoors and low-capacity). There are even little makeshift sinks outside shops and restaurants, fashioned out of plastic washbasins and water dispensers, with anti-bacterial soap. I’m fairly sure my Maasai guide, Joseph, would be horror-struck if I showed him pictures of the London Underground and what the morning commute of a successful CEO looks like during a pandemic.
I’m in Tarangire National Park, which I last visited as a child in 1992. My mum, Pat, had worked at a clinic in Moshi before I was born, and we did a wonderful DIY safari with her old co-workers, that very possibly turned me into a budding travel writer. With me in Tarangire in 2021 is my friend Sarah, a specialist Africa writer. In March 2020, when everyone questioned our existences, I decided to stay still for a change. I didn’t want to write about stuff that most people in Britain couldn’t do. Instead I’d try and find pleasure and adventure in the everyday, writing for my fellow grounded travel lovers.
Sarah made a different choice. She spent six months travelling around Africa, visiting Uganda, Rwanda, Botswana, Kenya and Tanzania. She felt she could be much more use out here in Africa, doing her job, generating stories that would eventually encourage tourists back into regions that rely on them. This week, like every other traveller on the planet – and the 10 per cent of the global population who work in tourism – we’re weighing up rights and wrongs, risks and rewards, benefits and losses. Here in Tanzania I feel safe, and I feel fortunate, and I feel like my money is going to people who need it. But I don’t feel certain… and a break from uncertainty is a holiday we all desperately need.