How Geographic Ignorance Is Killing Africa's Tourism Industry

Credit: Martyn Colbeck / Getty Images

The Ebola virus outbreak, which has killed 5,177 people already this year, has a new victim: Africa's tourism industry. While the outbreak is restricted to three countries in Africa's western corner — Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea — travel is down across the entire continent.

In September, Netherlands-based SafariBookings.com conducted a survey of 500 safari tour operators and reported that about a half are experiencing a 20- to 70-percent decrease in bookings. In November, South Africa's daily newspaper, Business Day, reported that holidaymakers from the Far East, Europe, and North America were canceling their travel plans. "We're down about 50 percent," says Ashish Sanghrajka, president of Big Five Tours & Expeditions, "which seems to be the average."

The travel panic has left many Africa tourism outfitters scratching their heads. The Ebola outbreak is closer to Spain and Portugal than it is to Kenya and Tanzania, Africa's most popular safari destinations. And it's closer to many hotspots in Western Europe, including the French Riviera and Rome, than it is to South Africa, some 6,000 miles south. South African Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool told USA Today that ignorance is the problem, not Ebola. "Ironically it's not the epidemic of Ebola that is the problem," he said. "Anyone who would even look at a map would know the tourism industry in most of Africa is suffering from an outbreak of ignorance."

Considering how economically dependent most African countries are on tourism, geographic ignorance could prove massively damaging to lives across the continent. One out of every 20 jobs in Africa is in the tourist and travel industry. In 2012, tourism contributed a total of $172.4 billion to the GDP of the continent's 54 countries. That's not even counting the impact tourism has on conservation and wildlife preservation. According to data recently published by National Geographic, illegal elephant poaching — which kills 100 elephants a day in Africa — is 30- to 40-percent less in eastern and southern Africa, the areas with the most tourism. "The only thing standing in the way of the threat of extinction of wild elephants and rhinos in Africa are tourists paying to see these majestic creatures on safari," says Sanghrajka.

Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a clear message coming from the U.S. Government that it's okay to travel to most parts of Africa during the Ebola outbreak, and that more than ever, Africa needs tourists. "The most common question we're getting is, 'If I come to Africa, will I be able to get back home, or will I be stopped by TSA?'" says Sanghrajka. "Let me be very clear: There are no health restrictions on travel to any part of Africa except those three countries impacted by the outbreak — Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea — and those aren't vacation destinations anyway." 

Zimbabwe
Geography: Landlocked country in southern Africa, 5,839 miles from Sierra Leone
Famous for: Victoria Falls National Park and its namesake waterfall, considered the most spectacular in the world at twice the height of Niagara Falls.
Notable wildlife: elephant, giraffe, cape buffalo, white rhino, hippopotamus, zebra, antelope, crocodile, baboon
What's hot now: Walking safari tours (no vehicles), or in the case of Elephant Camp, a luxury lodge 10 minutes from Victoria Falls, safaris aboard an elephant's back.
What's new: Victoria Falls International Airport is in the midst of an expansion to handle wide-body carriers (read: easier access), slated for completion June 2015.
Getting there: Connect through Johannesburg, South Africa

Namibia
Geography: Borders the Atlantic Ocean in southwestern Africa, 5,018 miles from Sierra Leone
Famous for: Africa's largest game park — Namib-Naukluft National Park, an area larger than Switzerland with a dramatic landscape of red granite and 1,000-foot tall sand dunes.
Notable wildlife: Cheetah, desert-adapted elephant, giraffe, cape buffalo, black and white rhinos, zebra, antelope, ostrich
What's hot now: Ecotourism. Namibia is the only country in Africa that wrote a paragraph on sustainability into its constitution.
What's new: In August, Wilderness Safaris opened Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp, a 100-percent solar powered luxury camp in Namibia's remote Kaokoveld Region, adjacent to the iconic Skeleton Coast National Park.
Getting there: Connect through Johannesburg, or Cape Town, in South Africa

Kenya
Geography: Situated on the equator in east Africa, bordered by the Indian Ocean to the southeast, 4,905 miles from Sierra Leone
Famous for: The great wildebeest migration, where millions of the large herbivores migrate from the Serengeti in neighboring Tanzania to Kenya's Maasai Mara
Notable wildlife: Africa's Big Five — lion, leopard, buffalo, rhinoceros, and elephant — plus wildebeest, cheetah, giraffe, and zebra
What's hot now: Community based conservation. The Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust employs 101 rangers from the local Maasai community to curb poaching, and Northern Rangelands Trust enables community conservancies, a partnership between safari camp operators and local villagers.
What's new: Chyulu Hills in southeastern Kenya can now boast the lowest poaching rate in Africa.
Getting there: Fly direct to Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, from most major European cities and Dubai.

Tanzania
Geography: Directly south of Kenya in eastern Africa, bordered by the Indian Ocean to the east, 4,990 miles from Sierra Leone
Famous for: Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa at 19,341 feet
Notable wildlife: Africa's Big Five — lion, leopard, buffalo, rhinoceros, and elephant — plus wildebeest, big cats, and primates.
What's hot now: Luxury safari camps located in wildlife sanctuaries
What's new: In June, Asilia opened Namiri Plains Camp, a six-tent camp in an area of the Serengeti that had been closed to tourists for 20 years for cheetah conservation and research. It's believed to house the densest cheetah population in the country, as well as other big cats. 
Getting there: KLM offers daily direct flights from Amsterdam to Kilimanjaro International Airport, and several European carriers fly direct into Dar es Salaam, Tanzania's capital.

Mozambique
Geography: Directly south of Tanzania in southeastern Africa, bordered by the Indian Ocean to the east, 6,715 miles from Sierra Leone
Famous for: The restoration of Gorongosa National Park, which had been decimated by a 17-year civil war that started in 1975.
Notable wildlife: Lion, elephant, buffalo, hippopotamus, antelope, crocodile
What's hot now: Ibo Island, a remote spot in the Quirimbas Archipelago with little influence from the outside world, and a recent World Heritage Site nomination
What's new: CW Safaris' Ibo Island Dhow Safari — a-first-of-its-kind island-hopping safari for groups of 12 or less.
Getting there: Connect through Johannesburg, or Cape Town, in South Africa

Botswana
Geography: Landlocked country in southern Africa, 6,442 miles from Sierra Leone
Famous for: The Okavango Delta, the world's largest inland delta attracting great concentrations of animals and birds.
Notable Wildlife: Africa's Big Five — lion, leopard, buffalo, rhinoceros, and elephant — plus wildebeest, hippopotamus, zebra, crocodile, cheetah, hyena, antelope, warthog, baboon
What's hot now: Anything anti-mass market, particularly small safari camps in remote spots like Abu Camp — six tents located amidst an elephant herd (and pretty much nothing else) in the southwest section of the Okavango Delta.
What's new: Montana-based Adventures and Scientists for Conservation is working on a project where citizen scientist volunteers will live and work alongside members of the local Bayei tribe to gather water quality and wildlife data as part of a study on the health of the Okavango Delta.
Getting there: Connect through Johannesburg, or Cape Town, in South Africa