When Canadian tourist Shauna Magill posted on Facebook that she’d arrived safely in Uganda, a friend warned her to beware of “a thing called Ebola please.”
Another friend responded to that comment with a Google Maps link that showed Uganda’s capital, Kampala, and Nigeria, the closest nation affected by the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, are 4,900 kilometers (3,045 miles) apart by road. That’s about the width of the continental U.S.
Misperceptions about Africa’s geography mean that Magill is becoming an exception among the increasing number of travelers who are canceling trips to the continent as health workers battle to contain the worst Ebola outbreak on record. Airlines have suspended routes to Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, the countries that are the epicenter of the disease. Flight bookings to sub-Saharan Africa may drop as much as 50 percent over the next four months, according to market research company Euromonitor International Plc. That would put the brakes on a tourism industry the World Bank says grew at the fastest pace globally over the past three years.
“Many travelers see Africa as one big country,” Paz Casal, a Spain-based travel and tourism research analyst at Euromonitor, said Aug. 26. “Ebola can damage Africa’s economic revival of recent years, resurfacing the continent’s negative stereotypes as a place of disease, famine and poverty.”
Ebola has killed 1,552 people out of 3,069 cases since December. It may shave as much as 1.5 percentage points off growth in the worst-affected economies, according to African Development Bank President Donald Kaberuka. A separate outbreak has killed as many as 13 people in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the viral illness was first discovered in 1976.
The government of Nigeria, Africa’s biggest economy, confirmed yesterday a doctor in the oil city of Port Harcourt was the sixth Ebola-infected person to die in that country, marking the first fatality outside the commercial hub of Lagos.
Attempts by African governments to increase medical surveillance at airports haven’t stopped carriers including British Airways Plc and Kenya Airways Ltd. from suspending flights to Ebola-affected nations. Korean Air Lines Co. this month deferred its route to Kenya, three time zones away from the outbreak, because of the risk of the infection spreading there via services from West Africa.
A frenzy of media reporting after news in July that two American aid workers were infected with Ebola in Liberia and the canceled Korean Air flight led to an increased sense of apprehension among travelers to Kenya, Jake Grieves-Cook, spokesman for the Kenya Tourism Federation, said in an e-mailed response to questions. One traveler wrote that it was unfair to proceed with taking her younger sister on a trip because her husband would worry, he said.
Kenya is already facing a sluggish year for tourism because of “negative” reports about insecurity following a series of attacks by Islamist militants, Grieves-Cook said.
“So long as there is effective screening and prompt treatment of patients in isolation wards, the situation should be brought under control,” he said. “The numbers are very low compared with deaths worldwide from malaria or AIDS or influenza, which do not cause such a level of panic.”
A child dies an average of every minute in Africa from malaria, an illness that’s preventable and curable, according to the World Health Organization. On Aug. 8, the WHO declared the West Africa Ebola outbreak a public health emergency. The agency says the risk of Ebola spreading during air travel is low.
Ebola, which has no proven cure and is transmitted through direct contact with bodily fluids from an infected person, can ravage the body with symptoms that include bleeding from the eyes and ears, vomiting and organ failure. The current outbreak has killed about half of those infected.
“The typical traveler isn’t going to hospitals to shake hands with sick people,” Edward Bergman, executive director of the New York-based Africa Travel Association, a promotion group, said by phone. “We urge the travel industry and traveling public to remain cautious, however, to acknowledge the vast size of the continent and to continue to travel to those areas that are not affected.”
In addition to misunderstanding the geography of Africa, the largest continent by land mass and population after Asia, visitors are also concerned that cash-strapped governments will be unable to contain the spread, Thulani Nzima, chief executive officer of South African Tourism, said by phone. Asian tour groups are among those canceling trips because of the disease, he said, without giving more details.
Tourism in South Africa last year was the third-largest contributor to gross domestic product and employs about one in every 10 people with jobs in the country, he said.
“A lot of countries out there still paint Africa as a country, rather than a continent,” said Nzima. “They do not believe that we have control, that we can manage this.”
Tourist arrivals to sub-Saharan Africa have quadrupled since 1990 to 34 million visitors in 2012, according to the World Bank. Even still, Africa accounts for just 5 percent of international tourist arrivals, compared with Asia’s 23 percent.
Europe is the top source of tourist traffic to the region, mainly because of ties dating to the colonial era and shared languages, with Asian travelers representing just 3 percent, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization.
Hotel chains including Marriott International Inc., Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc. and Hilton Worldwide Inc. are opening more locations in Africa to tap the growing middle-class of consumers and rising travel levels. The International Monetary Fund says seven of the 10 fastest-growing economies in the next five years will likely be in Africa.
Aside from Ghana and the Cape Verde archipelago in West Africa, the main tourist centers in sub-Saharan Africa are to the east and south, including Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Mauritius, where tourism infrastructure is relatively developed, according to the World Bank. Africa’s tourism industry has been held back by challenges ranging from unsafe road networks to high crime rates and political instability to cumbersome immigration procedures, the bank said.
Ebola-affected nations represent less than 0.5 percent of all international travel to Africa, muting the “direct impact” from the outbreak on tourism, Sandra Carvao, the World Tourism Organization’s chief of communications, said in an e-mailed response to questions.
“Putting a halt on flights or imposing unnecessary travel restrictions will not help contain the virus but it will surely dampen the economy of the region, namely its travel and tourism sector, and jeopardize millions of livelihoods,” Carvao said.
After learning about the Ebola outbreak a few weeks before her trip this month, Magill briefly considered canceling the adventure break through East Africa that includes white-water rafting and seeing gorillas in the wild. She had been planning the visit for two years and it cost C$8,000 ($7,366), about eight months’ rent.
“I had second thoughts about coming because of how the media in Canada displayed the outbreak in western Africa; they don’t explain the rest of the continent is safe and not affected by the virus,” Magill, a 30-year-old disability manager based in Calgary, Alberta, said in an e-mailed response to questions.
“It’s a serious virus and it’s scary to see it happen anywhere, and a number of people thought I was silly to still be coming and putting myself in danger,” she said. “But because of the type of trip I’m doing I was fairly confident that I would be fine.”