“We live in very challenging and uncharted waters at the moment,” says Nigel Vere Nicoll, President of the African Travel and Tourism Association (ATTA®), an organisation which he founded 25 years ago.
It is a stark warning from the head of a body that represents the tourism trade in Africa.
ATTA® has around 700 members in Sub-Saharan Africa, split relatively evenly between buyers – such as tour operators – and suppliers (hotels, lodges, and transportation companies). As President of ATTA®, Vere Nicoll has detailed knowledge of how the coronavirus pandemic is impacting the African tourism industry, which is why I’ve contacted him.
The questions I ask him make me feel as if we’re both characters in a dystopian novel (indeed, there’s been a boom in sales of books about epidemics, including Albert Camus’ The Plague).
First, I ask the industry veteran whether international travel to Africa is currently possible, or if all borders are currently closed.
“In the 21 countries we represent, the answer is ‘no’, because there are non-essential travel warnings on in many African countries, and many more will be putting them on in the next day or so,” Vere Nicoll says. “You can go on holiday – the non-essential warning isn’t binding – but the likelihood is you won’t get into the country in question.
“I was speaking to the British High Commission in Nairobi today, and I questioned why some countries are being given a non-essential travel warning when they have very few cases. The answer I got was because anyone visiting these countries will have to go immediately into self-isolation – they won’t be able to get anywhere. So, there’s no point in them going.
“British, Americans and Europeans can’t travel – this is going to decimate the African market. It is extremely serious, and we have to help find ways to work around it.”
One of the biggest problems currently facing the industry is a confusion over cancelled bookings. The UK government’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office offers three travel advisories – ‘green’ (you can go), ‘amber’ (all but essential travel) and ‘red’ (don’t go).
“The amber advisory is the trigger for the insurance industry to say ‘we’re not going to pay,’” Vere Nicoll explains. “And under EU package regulations, Article 12 paragraph 8, the tour operators have to refund their customers in full.
“These companies are fighting for survival. Many organisations, including ATTA®, are clubbing together to ask the government for temporary changes to the EU package restrictions with immediate effect. So, for Africa, we’re saying that tour operators shouldn’t be responsible for providing refunds if these costs aren’t covered by the suppliers, such as hotels.
“We also want a government-backed hardship fund to help tour operators, because tour operators are saying they don’t have the money to refund – they need their profits to pay their staff. If they have to refund everyone then they haven’t got anything left. Tour operators are also saying that they want to provide refunds in an alternative format, such as credit to be used over the next year. But that’s not the law.”
Convincing the UK government to make a short-term change to current measures is vital to the African tourism industry. This is because there are around 150 tour operators in the UK specialising in African travel, ranging from larger companies like TUI, to smaller boutique operators.
Vere Nicoll stresses that it’s important for buyers and suppliers in the tourism industry to collaborate in the upcoming months.
“We’ve shared the benefits in the past – let’s work together to share the burden. It’s not about rules and regulations, it’s about finding a solution,” the ATTA® President says.
I also ask about the effect coronavirus will have on the wider African economy. Vere Nicoll tells me that there will be a massive impact, at least in the short term, as so many people in Africa are directly and indirectly employed in the tourism industry.
“Take one small boutique lodge in Africa with, say, 10 rooms,” he says. “They would employ about 50 people, but their extended suppliers – so, the person who does the laundry, or brings in the eggs every day – probably equates to around 1,000 extra people. If that lodge packs up, then 1,000 people have no income.”
The ATTA® President further informs me that there are other, less obvious effects. In Kenya, for example, many conservancies have been established on land belonging to the Masai Mara peoples. They remove their grazing cattle from the land and lease it to organisations building safari lodges who conserve it for wildlife, the revenue from tourists providing an income to the Masai people.
“That model works fine until there’s a nonessential travel warning, and then no money is coming in and they can’t pay the Masai,” Vere Nicoll adds. “One my closest friends has just been to see one of the chiefs and explained the situation, telling him ‘we’re going to go on paying you out of reserve funds, but we don’t know how long this is sustainable for.’
“If this goes on for a long time, all this work on conservancies will be put in jeopardy, because if the Masai don’t get revenue then their livelihood is at stake.”
So, what is the solution? How can the African tourism industry keep going?
Vere Nicoll believes the answer lies in domestic tourism. As there are such low levels of COVID-19 within many African countries at the moment, travel is still possible.
“It’s not possible to cross borders within Africa, because they all have the same warning on, but it is possible to create domestic tourism,” he explains. “In fact, this is an amazing opportunity to create cashflow for survival with the local market. Kenya, for example, has a huge number of Europeans living within the country, who could become domestic tourists.”
Another saving grace is that it’s currently low season in East Africa, so tourism companies and hotels in that area anticipate having fewer customers this time of year. Some smaller safari lodges are even closed, ready to reopen for summer’s high season.
“What we are hoping is that tourism will recover in the English autumn and they’ll have the chance to get some bookings in the late season, leading up until Christmas,” Vere Nicoll says. “If it lasts any longer, we’re in a totally different ball game.”
However, he concludes our conversation on a note of optimism.
“The bottom line is that the tourism industry is very resilient. It always has been. We’ve been through many problems over the years, especially in eastern and southern Africa, and we’ve always come through in the end.
“I think the industry will come out of it much stronger. A lot of relationships will be built up. And I think that once the coronavirus goes, if it’s a short-term thing, then the industry will bounce back tremendously.”
In these uncertain times, it’s important to cling onto messages of hope like this.