Why the latest Africa travel bans could hammer a safari industry already on the edge

·5-min read
Sarah Marshall and Himba villagers
Sarah Marshall and Himba villagers

When Namibia’s Himba communities first found out about Covid, they thought the world was coming to an end.

“We were told something was killing people far away,” one of the village matriarchs told me as she assembled crafts for tourists to buy. “When the lodges closed, we didn’t think we’d survive.”

Serra Cafema, on the border with Angola, feels as far from London as the moon. But in recent years, decisions made in Westminster have directly impacted people’s lives. The latest news, unfortunately, delivers a message few people want to hear.

Yesterday the UK government announced Namibia would be reinstated on the red list, along with South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) and Lesotho. Anyone arriving in the UK from 4am on Sunday November 28 will be placed in mandatory government hotel quarantine at their own expense.

This picture of chaos and concern bears little resemblance to the scenes I encountered in Namibia 10 days ago. Although holiday bookings were still lower than average, the mood was quietly optimistic, and people were looking forward to a busy Christmas period. There were no hints of health scares, no talk of variants. Instead, there was a sense the worst had passed.

For so many Africans dependent on tourism, the UK Government’s drastic decision will be devastating. Barely been given an opportunity to recover from 20 months of crippling travel bans, camps, operators and communities will be wondering how to deal with this latest blow.

Elephant walks past a camp - Grant Thomas/iStockphoto
Elephant walks past a camp - Grant Thomas/iStockphoto

“Businesses have held out for almost two years and these latest bans are bound to compromise what was already an ailing industry,” complains Beks Ndlovu CEO and founder of African Bush Camps, who operate 15 camps across Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia.

“Whilst it is understandable why Western governments want to be cautious, they need to be aware that every day they keep this ban in place it causes tremendous damage from which many will not recover.”

Although no-one knows how long the red listing will remain in place, Ndlovu implores people to delay imminent plans rather than cancel.

Mike Kelly, co-founder of specialist family safari company Coral Tree Travel, agrees: “Our advice to anyone who has booked a holiday is to wait and see how the situation develops. The government has been clear that this is an interim precautionary measure to study the new variant; the restrictions may be removed as quickly as they were imposed.”

Virgin Atlantic is adopting a similarly measured approach.

Following the UK’s temporary flight ban to South Africa from midnight on November 26 until 4am on November 28, they are currently reviewing schedules to Johannesburg and say it’s too early to decide whether the relaunch of their direct Cape Town route on December 17 will be postponed.

Cape Town - Westend61
Cape Town - Westend61

Of course, anyone who does want to cancel or delay their holiday should contact their tour operator, who will be working to repatriate clients and deal with customers in date order, advises Richard Smith, co-owner of Aardvark Safaris.

Once the immediate panic has subsided, however, bigger questions will be asked about how this impacts the safari industry for the future and why alternative measures weren’t explored.

The World Health Organisation has already issued a statement, warning countries to “apply a risk-based and scientific approach when implementing travel measures”.

Smith suggests the British government should follow Africa’s example by reintroducing PCR testing for places of particular concern.

Many will be asking whether the drastic measures are proportionate. In Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls region, for example, 83.8 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated – an exceptionally high rate compared with other countries across the world.

Shelley Cox, who works for public-private partnership We Are Victoria Falls, believes that by imposing a blanket ban, countries are overlooking and ignoring the exemplary efforts many places have been making.

Victoria Falls - Peter Unger/Stone RF
Victoria Falls - Peter Unger/Stone RF

Yet again, it feels like policy makers have overreacted without giving thought for the longer-term implications of their actions, which can be even more damaging than the disease itself.

“The impact this will have on the confidence of an already nervous marketplace will likely resonate for some time,” warns Jarrod Kyte, product and sales director for Steppes Travel. “This Covid-bolt from the blue will break hearts and bank balances alike and may well see some companies in southern Africa call it a day.”

Already the news is causing disruption in other parts of Africa.

“It’s not just the six nations that will be affected but the whole continent,” says Paul Goldstein, co-owner of Kicheche camps in Kenya.

“It is scaremongering of the very worst kind and will, not for the first time, pour further blood on the hands of these misguided decision-makers. They chuck out arbitrary olive sprigs to the beleaguered industry, not understanding that it does not switch on and off like a gas tap, then they cut them down, root and branch.”

Even more worrying is the realisation that – until most of the world’s population is vaccinated – variants will continue to emerge. So, wouldn’t it be better to focus on increasing vaccine availability and uptake rather than turning our backs on countries who are already struggling to cope?

“South Africa should be commended for the speed and transparency with which they have bought the world’s attention to this new strain,” points out Jarrod Kyte.

“As the Prime Minister of Barbados, Mia Mottley said so eloquently at COP 26, a pandemic requires global solutions and collaboration. In the coming weeks and months, it is vital that the safari industry works together to help southern Africa bounce back from this cruel blow.”

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