We reached out to a few tour operators that sell travel to Africa to see how the Ebola crisis is affecting their bookings to this continent. Here’s what they had to say.
“Unfortunately, [Ebola has] affected travel to all areas of Africa. Areas feeling the biggest impact are Eastern and Southern Africa, which is immensely upsetting as there is negligible risk to travelers to these regions,” says Moira Smith, general manager, Africa and Middle East for Goway Travel. In fact, according to Smith, Goway’s forward bookings are down approximately 40 percent from last year. “We have had both cancellations as well as postponements with clients. Unfortunately, the media is largely responsible for showcasing Africa as a country, not a vast continent home to 54 countries of which currently only three are impacted. Potential travelers are getting enormous pressure from those in their circle not to travel. Last week, we had a cancellation for passengers traveling to South Africa and Mauritius for fear of getting infected, and that was compounded by the wife’s company advising that if she traveled to Africa, she would not be allowed back at work for three weeks after her return.
“[There are] immense distances between East Africa and Southern Africa,” points out Smith. “Spain, Portugal and Brazil are all closer to the affected countries than Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana or South Africa. Also, what is extremely important is that the disease is not air borne. Transmission requires direct contact with blood, secretions, organs or other body fluids of infected living or dead persons or animal, all unlikely exposures for the average traveler who would be traveling to the affected areas, and completely impossible in those areas where there is no Ebola.” Reported Ebola cases in Africa incidentally, are currently limited to Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.
According to Ashish Sanghrajka, president of Big Five Tours and Expeditions, not traveling to South Africa is equivalent to “canceling plans to go on vacation in Quebec because there is an Ebola outbreak in Dallas.” Big Five Tours and Expeditions is seeing the same client response as Goway, with guests canceling because “they are now worried that they won’t be allowed back into their own country. The message from our elected leaders is very convoluted and they [our elected leaders] are striking fear instead of leading with a steady hand,” says Sanghrajka. Though he adds that, “Those that are booked are still going for the most part.”
African Travel, Inc’s president, Jim Holden, however, says that “inquiries for travel in the future is slower than we would normally expect at this time of year.”
The tour operators we spoke with noted that the African governments, tour operators, and lodges are taking the proper precautions to keep the areas that are popular safari destinations safe and open for travel. “Most have taken extra steps regarding their treatment policies long before the west did,” says Sanghrajka. “They are making sure from the moment you land to the moment you leave, that hygiene and cleanliness and disinfection of common surfaces is a priority. They [hotels, tour operators, etc.] are also educating their community-based staff to do the same.” Holden adds that, “All international airports are following passenger screening procedures as laid down by IATA [ the International Air Transport Association]. Government agencies are similarly taking all precautions to ensure Ebola cannot be imported from any of the countries affected in West Africa. Lodges and tour operators, assisted by relevant government agencies and the more responsible and professional media, are doing their best to get out the facts about Ebola and put travelers concerns to rest.”
However, if there is an outbreak or risk of travel, many tour operators and suppliers are prepared and will offer full refunds. “While we realize that the odds of Ebola affecting our itineraries are minuscule at best, we hope to assuage any fears that a guest may have by updating our cancellation policy to address this sensitive subject,” says Dan Austin, president and founder of Austin Adventures. In the event that a case of Ebola is confirmed within the parameters, booked guests with Austin Adventures could either cancel their trip completely, at least seven days prior to their scheduled departures without having to pay a cancellation fee, or they could postpone their trip and travel at a later date for the same price. The company, which offers travel to Arusha, Brazzaville, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Livingstone, Maun, Nairobi, and Windhoek, does not see an imminent threat to its current itineraries. As it is, Brazzaville, the capital city of the Republic of Congo, is the closest to the African countries with Ebola cases, but still more than 3,000 miles away from the outbreaks. That’s about the distance from Maine to California. Again, it all goes back to geography, so if a client is looking at canceling a trip to Africa, remind them of where the Ebola outbreaks are taking place and the immense distance to their their planned vacation destination.