African Safari Demand Wilts Far From Ebola Danger Zone

Tourists on Safari in Kenya
Tourists travel in a safari tour vehicle as they watch a herd of Wildebeest in the Massai Mara National park in Kenya. Foreign anxiety over Ebola in a country where the virus is absent only adds to the drag on tourism after a 2013 terrorist attack in Nairobi. Photographer: Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images

Far from the heart of West Africa’s Ebola outbreak, the safari industry is taking a hit as alarm over the deadly virus causes travelers to shun the entire continent.

Tour operators in the eastern and southern nations famed for wildlife are part of widening fallout from the disease. Instead of just skirting the danger zone in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, some visitors are abandoning a sub-Saharan tourism market the World Bank estimates at $36 billion.

“It’s a shame,” said Oyin Anubi, a Bank of America Corp. economist in London. “There haven’t been any cases of Ebola in East Africa, but I think it’s more an issue of perception rather than reality on the ground.”

Reservations for future trips are down and cancellations of existing vacations are up at least 10 percent at more than half of 500 safari companies in a survey last month, according to online marketplace SafariBookings.com. In Kenya, foreign anxiety over Ebola in a country where the virus is absent only adds to the drag on tourism after a 2013 terrorist attack in Nairobi.

“A lot of worries about Africa-risk in general are about political risk, which is very specific to each country,” Anubi said by telephone. “With Ebola, people may just be painting the whole continent with one brush, where it is a relatively isolated outbreak for now.”

Traditional Venues

Traditional venues such as South Africa, Zambia, Botswana, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya -- where tourists can view photogenic big game on the east’s open plains or the south’s subtropical bush -- are far from the Ebola-afflicted region. A flight from Nairobi to Monrovia, Liberia, is about 5,400 kilometers (3,300 miles). A London-Monrovia trip is only 5,100 kilometers.

“I’ve just finished a marketing trip to Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, and they’re not booking,” said Stefano Cheli, the founder of Nairobi-based tour operator Cheli & Peacock. “They’re paranoid that there’s Ebola in Africa and not realizing the distances involved. It’s closer to fly from Liberia to London than it is to fly from Liberia to Nairobi.”

The World Bank cut its forecast for economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa in 2014 to 4.6 percent on Oct. 7, from April’s 5.2 percent, in part because of Ebola’s effects in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. The bank cited reports of travel being damped as far away as South Africa, a potentially ominous sign.

South Africa

“Tourism is relatively small in the core three countries, but for South Africa the drop of tourism activity could have significant implications for economic growth,” the bank said. South Africa’s tourism department said foreign visitors rose 5 percent to a record 9.6 million last year.

Kenya, where hotel occupancy plunged to as low as 12 percent after 2013’s terrorist assault on a mall, now faces visitor anxiety “magnified by the Ebola scare discouraging tourism across Africa,” according to Armando Morales, resident representative of the International Monetary Fund in Nairobi.

Guinea was the site of the first Ebola diagnoses in the current epidemic, which may exceed 9,000 cases in West Africa this week, the World Health Organization said yesterday. Outbreaks in Senegal and Nigeria were controlled. Within the past three weeks, the virus reached the U.S. and Europe.

Gorilla Watchers

Ralph Iantosca, owner of Irving, Texas-based GoGirl Travel, is working with a family of nine that is debating whether to postpone a 2015 East Africa vacation.

“I organized a fabulous gorilla-trekking program to see the silverbacks in Rwanda, following a six-night safari to the Serengeti and then off to dive in Zanzibar,” Iantosca said by e-mail. “I’m grateful I have an entire globe to work with.”

Land excursions to ogle lions, leopards, rhinoceroses, elephants and buffalo don’t come cheap. Abercrombie & Kent, the largest luxury tour provider in Africa, charges as much as $13,995 for two-week trips onto the savanna. Visitors can find providers of bicycle tours through Tanzania’s volcanic Ngorongoro Crater, canoe excursions down the Zambezi River in Zambia and, for fees approaching $50,000, licensed hunts in Zimbabwe for trophy animals.

In the past nine days -- a period that included the death of the first patient diagnosed in the U.S. and infections for two nurses -- customer anxiety has grown, some companies said.

Abercrombie & Kent in London saw a “handful” of cancellations due to increased media attention to the disease, a spokeswoman, Pamela Lassers, wrote in an e-mail.

Conversation Topic

“I cannot get through a conversation without the topic being brought up,” Jay Johnson, president of Coastline Travel Advisors in Garden Grove, California, said by e-mail. “The new concern is that they are going to catch it from being on the plane with someone who is infected.”

Not all tour operators are seeing cancellations. Private Safaris, which is owned by Zurich-based Kuoni Reisen Holding AG, posted none. Most of the company’s 24,000 annual customers are European, Chief Executive Officer Thomas Goosmann said.

“Our clients have often traveled to the region before and are able to differentiate,” Goosmann said by phone. “They know that Sierra Leone is closer to Paris than to Kenya.”

In the U.S., travel agencies and tour providers find they sometimes must moonlight as geography teachers, offering reassurance to worried vacationers by mapping the location of safari markets against West African Ebola-hit countries.

New Phenomenon

“That’s a conversation we never had to have in the past,” said Ina Steinhilber of Thomson Safaris, which arranges 400 trips a year. The Watertown, Massachusetts-based agency has had some cancellations, Steinhilber said by phone, while declining to provide numbers.

At Great Getaways Travel in Kansas City, Kansas, this month’s seven Africa trips are all unfolding under the shadow of the Ebola epidemic. The disease has been part of every safari-related conversation for months, owner Michael King said.

Discussions about more than 10 prospective bookings have ground to a halt because customers are concerned the Ebola situation will worsen, King said by phone last week. One customer called just after the first case on U.S. soil to freeze plans for a June safari for which he’d already placed a deposit.

The client’s view was: “‘My feeling is that if it can get to the United States, there isn’t a safe place right now in Africa to be,’” King said.

Joao Oliveira, founder of Tanzania-based tour company It Started in Africa, said that kind of generalization about the continent is all too common. Africa, he said by phone, is unique in having outsiders conflate country-level issues that way.

“People do not cancel their vacations to London or Paris because there is a conflict in Ukraine,” Oliveira said.

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