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Africa’s fast-growing tourism industry could lose up to $120 billion and millions of jobs

Heather Richardson
·7 min read

When the Covid-19 pandemic changed the world earlier this year many African countries were quick to react. Borders were closed and protocols from past or existing epidemics (TB, HIV, Ebola) were rolled out. Of the many industries hit by lockdowns, tourism—an industry that indirectly employs 24.6 million people across the continent (6.8% of total employment)—was hit particularly hard.

In July, Safaribookings.com surveyed 306 safari operators and found that over 90% had seen a 75% or more decrease in both booking requests and actual bookings due to the coronavirus outbreak. The World Travel and Tourism Council’s (WTTC) best case scenario is $53 billion hit to GDP across the continent; its worst case scenario is a $120 billion loss in GDP contribution.

“Tourism is one of the largest industries worldwide and provides 7% of Africa’s GDP,” says Dr. Annika Surmeier, an economic geographer working at the University of Manchester and the University of Cape Town. “National lockdowns and travel bans to reduce the spread of Covid-19 had devastating effects on the tourism industry and hundreds of thousands of people, often women or people from poor communities, have lost their jobs.”

The Radisson Hotel Group has close to 100 hotels in Africa. Tim Cordon, senior VP for the Middle East and Africa, says they have tried to save jobs where possible: “We really have focused on perhaps reducing hours, temporary layoffs or cutting costs in other parts of our business rather than taking very difficult decisions with our teams.”

Cordon estimates it will take “a period of 24 months in terms of recovery before we’re likely to reach our performance levels of last year.”

The pandemic hit as Africa’s tourism industry became the second fastest growing in the world. International visitors were showing more interest in tourism beyond safaris—Ghana welcomed around a million visitors in 2019, up from 803,000 in 2009, as its Year of the Return campaign generated a lot of positive coverage. Airbnb were rapidly expanding in Africa and in 2018 held the first Airbnb Africa Travel Summit in the Cape Town township of Langa. Ethiopian Airlines had been offering new routes to develop pan-African travel and helped make Addis Ababa, a key tourist gateway for all of Africa.

Some of that optimism hasn’t gone away: earlier in July, Radisson announced six new hotels in South Africa, Mali, Nigeria, Ghana and Ethiopia. But the industry is mostly in a waiting pattern as it’s beholden not just to pandemic restrictions being made by each African country, but also in the countries where visitors usually come from such as the United States, the UK and more recently China.

Regional challenges

South Africa, which has the second largest tourism industry in Africa, relies on the tourism industry to indirectly contribute up to 9.1% of South Africa’s total employment—1.5 million people—and 7% of its GDP.

But the strict Level 5 lockdown in Africa’s most advanced economy, introduced in late March, has not prevented it from having by far the most confirmed Covid-19 cases of any African country. And the challenges the country is facing with Covid-19 could mean the tourism industry will have to wait till 2021 before its borders are fully reopened. Provincial borders are currently open for business travel, but not leisure tourism.

Tourists are seen at a Safari watching a herd of buffaloes at a game reserve adjacent to Kruger National Park in South Africa, April 11, 2019

Minister of Tourism Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane’s July budget speech made for daunting listening: a potential 75% decline in revenue for 2020; 438,000 tourism jobs at risk; $2.8 billion lost in three months.

South African accommodation providers have been on a rollercoaster over the past two months.

In June, president Ramaphosa said properties could reopen for intra-provincial leisure tourism—but, the day after issuing communications to the same effect three weeks later, the government announced there had been a mistake and in fact, overnight stays for leisure purposes were still prohibited.

One lodge owner, who wishes to remain anonymous, reported that having been closed for four months with no government support, she’d welcomed guests who still wanted to stay. Many other properties—faced with a choice between breaking the rules and closing up shop – did the same.

At the end of July, the government responded to pressure and announced that accommodation for intra-provincial leisure tourism could officially reopen.

Kenya has the continent’s sixth largest tourism industry, accounting for 8.2% of the country’s economy and 8.5% total employment in 2019. The sector has lost $750 million so far this year; revenue is expected to drop by at least 60% by the end of 2020.

Like South Africa, it also relies on international tourism—but has a more developed domestic tourism market, which has acted as a buffer when past events affected overseas arrivals (the Westgate terrorist attack, for example). Domestic spending in Kenya accounted for 66% of tourism revenue last year, which is a hopeful figure in the current climate.

With far fewer identified Covid cases than South Africa, Kenya is preparing to reopen its borders to certain countries in August. It relaunched domestic tourism earlier in July, with Covid protocols including social distancing of 1.5 meters, use of protective equipment and recent Covid-free certificates for ‘core staff’.

Photographs from the gate at the Maasai Mara—at this time of year usually packed with tourists from all over the world gathered to see the famous wildebeest migration river crossings – show cars full of domestic tourists queuing for entry for the first time in four months.

Morocco, the continent’s fourth largest tourism sector, sees around 11 million international annual arrivals. Last year tourism contributed 12% of the country’s GDP.

Having locked down four months ago, Morocco reopened its borders in July, but only for citizens and foreign residents. With major cities now closed off to contain coronavirus outbreaks, domestic tourism has taken a blow. Local tourism experts suggest they could lose 10.5 million tourists over 2020.

When the pandemic hit, Egypt was just emerging from a slump in international tourism. Last year, the industry contributed $29.5 billion to GDP, making it the largest tourism market in Africa. Ironically, the pandemic took hold in Egypt back in March via European tourists.

Tourists gather at the Great Pyramids of Giza, on the outskirts of Cairo, Egypt Mar. 8, just ahead of the lockdown

After a shutdown in March, domestic tourism operations resumed under certain conditions in May: hotels, for example, could only work on a 25% occupancy rate, relaxed to 50% in June.

International tourism resumed in July, but with the second highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Africa (though new cases are declining), 14-day quarantine-on-return requirements from major source markets such as the UK will be problematic.

Cordon points out that making guests feel safe, with robust health protocols, will be a major part of the tourism recovery phase – but he’s optimistic.

“The travel industry has rebounded from numerous past crises, and we strongly believe we will bounce back this time too,” Cordon says, “but with fresh and innovative perspectives.”

Surmeier also believes this indefinite pause may present an opportunity to “build back better”.

“When actors along tourism value chains collaborate,” she says, “they can create more resilient, sustainable and inclusive tourism industries in Africa and beyond.”

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