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Why the latest Ebola outbreak shouldn't stop you visiting East Africa

Ben West

Prospective holiday and business travellers to East Africa are no doubt closely following developments of the Ebola virus outbreak in the region.

The current outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) that recently spread to Uganda – the second largest outbreak on record – has already recorded nearly 2,500 cases and in excess of 1,665 deaths. The World Health Organization has just declared Ebola “a public health emergency of international concern”, while neighbouring countries such as Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda are on high alert, with the possibility of the disease crossing their borders very real.

When Ebola struck in West Africa between 2013 and 2016, it scared off many tourists and, despite the large distance involved, devastated tourism in East African countries too – even though the Ebola outbreak at that time happened to be nearer Madrid than the eastern side of the continent. It affected tourism in South Africa too, even though the country is even further away.

Considering that in April an American tourist was kidnapped in a Ugandan national park (to be released three days later), and Kenya has suffered a succession of terrorism incidents in recent years, inevitably those in the tourism industry in East Africa fear that these events will cause a nosedive in visitor confidence.

It would be a great pity if this was the case. When it comes to the likelihood of contracting Ebola, being kidnapped or involved in a terrorism attack in the region, we tend to assess travel risk badly abroad.

Currently, more people are dying from measles in the DRC than Ebola, and the chances of a holidaymaker or business visitor coming into contact with the virus there is negligible. The UK’s National Health Service says that the risk to travellers is “extremely low”.

That cliched sentence that’s trotted out whenever one needs to assure someone who is fearful of flying – that the journey to the airport is statistically far more dangerous than the flight itself – is totally true.

It would also be a great pity to avoid these countries simply because they have so much to offer the visitor. I’ve travelled throughout East Africa for three decades and have felt completely safe in almost all of that time.

Rwanda, for example, is an ideal destination for a new visitor to Africa. In many ways it has an excellent infrastructure (its roads are better than the UK’s, I’ve often thought), it is very safe, and its capital even has pristine manicured boulevards. Not to mention it being one of only three countries you can see mountain gorillas in the wild.

You can also see mountain gorillas in Uganda, and a huge further range of wildlife, including the Big Five (lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo, elephant) and more than 1,000 bird species, as well as tree-climbing lions and the Nile crocodile. It’s geographically varied, ranging from the snow-capped Rwenzori mountains to Africa’s largest lake, Victoria. It has the majestic River Nile as well as tropical forest, grasslands and volcanoes.

Kenya has fantastic safaris and beaches, and the cities of Mombasa and Lamu are culturally and historically rich.

Equally, Tanzania is a wonderful option. It has the largest concentration and diversity of animals in Africa, the highest mountain in Africa, Kilimanjaro, plus the Ngorongoro Crater, one of the world’s most pristine wildernesses.

For hardier souls, when Foreign Office safety advisories allow, the DRC offers stunning landscapes, mountain gorillas and the chance to camp by a bubbling volcanic lava lake, an experience that should beat most travel tales back home in the pub.

The greatest risks on a trip to sub-Saharan Africa are from traffic accidents and malaria, and there is a lot you can do to lessen the dangers of both, such as avoiding travel at night and choosing a driver and vehicle you instinctively feel safe with in the former, and taking malaria tablets, sleeping under a mosquito net and using a decent insect repellent in the latter.

Of course, you have to be sensible while you’re there – not flaunting any indication of wealth or going on a pub crawl in dodgy parts of the city at midnight and so on.

I once had a discussion with a pilot in Botswana about the many perceived risks Europeans believe are present in Africa. Indeed, he told me that as a child he grew up in the Rhodesian Bush War (aka the Zimbabwe War of Liberation) and had to carry a gun throughout his childhood. Along with the ever-present threat of deadly spiders and snakes, and dramatic tropical diseases, I suggested that it was a miracle he was still alive.

“But you’ve just told me that you live on a five-lane highway, a road where you saw a man run over and killed a month ago,” he said. “And you live in London, which I read is a hotbed of stabbings and shootings.” He was clearly just as puzzled that I was still standing as I was that he had survived.

One problem with trying to assess the dangers of travelling to a particular location is that the thing you are fearing is often not the thing you should be worried about.

For example, there has been a spike in interest in tourist tours of Chernobyl following the recent broadcast of the superb HBO TV drama about the 1986 nuclear disaster. You might fear the amount of radiation you might absorb on a trip. However, as long as you go with a reputable tour firm, keep to the main pathways and heed the advice given, you will have no issues at all. Indeed, you are exposed to more radiation on a long-haul flight than on a Chernobyl tour. The biggest hazard there are the huge holes in the floors of damaged buildings that anybody could fall through.

With all this in mind, if I was booked on or was considering a trip to East Africa, I wouldn’t think twice about going due to an outbreak of Ebola. I hope the thousands of visitors planning on going in the coming months don’t change their plans and threaten a tourism industry that is so important in the region.