Misperception impacting travel to Africa
SITE cannot ignore the current Ebola situation being communicated 24/7 through the media, but neither can we overreact which could lead to the corporate community making decisions to either relocate or postpone programs prematurely. We rely on the strong relationships that bind our members globally to gauge an accurate assessment about how fears about Ebola, heightened by anxiety-inducing news, are impacting the incentive travel industry.
It is critical that MICE industry professionals become educated and prepared to proactively address the situation with their customers, starting with an understanding of geography and the fact that Africa is not just one big country, but a continent made up of 54 individual countries.
“Travel to Africa has been affected by Ebola. There have been several cancellations, even to South Africa, although it is located a seven to eight hour flight away from the outbreak centre. These include several incentive and conference groups, but many more continue to travel to South Africa and to the non-affected regions within Africa,” stated Daryl Keywood, SITE board member and managing director, Walthers DMC, South Africa. “Cancellations are mostly from Asia and North America where there seems to be a lack of understanding regarding the true risk. Travel from Europe has been little affected possibly due to more frequent travel and strong colonial ties to the continent. Travel from Europe has been little affected possibly due to a better grasp of the huge size of Africa. Media reports have attempted to raise awareness to dispel fears but unfortunately the understanding of the limited area of the huge continent of Africa that is affected, and the low risk of transmission has not been clearly conveyed.”
The Ebola outbreak is currently limited to West Africa where the majority of cases have been recorded in three countries. Many parts of Europe and even South America are closer to the major Ebola areas of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, than the popular tourist areas of Southern and East Africa. If geography is used to determine risk, then London and Sao Paulo are closer to the Ebola outbreak than, for example, Cape Town or The Kruger National Park. Safaris and eco-tours are a major part of African tourism. In Namibia, tourism accounts for almost 15 per cent of the nation’s gross domestic product. But Ebola fears have severely affected the safari business, even though safaris are centred far from the affected areas.
South Africa and many other African countries have strict preventative measures in place. No person that has visited Liberia, Guinea or Sierra Leone may enter South Africa within a period of 32 days from departing the Ebola area. This is the agreed maximum incubation period for the disease. There are no direct flights between South Africa and any of the three major outbreak countries.
Prevention measures such as infra-red fever screening currently being implemented in the USA has been standard practice in South African Airports for many years. Neither the WHO or CDC has recommended travel restrictions to non-Ebola affected areas of Africa. Travel insurance continues to be offered to visitors to North, Southern and East Africa none of which have yet to record a case of Ebola.
As of last week Senegal and Nigeria have both been declared Ebola free by the WHO and there have been no new cases in either countries for almost two months. The prevention and containment measures in both countries have controlled the spread of the disease which was introduced by visitors or returning citizens.
Ebola is not new. There have been more than 20 outbreaks in the past 40 years. Although this year’s outbreak is the worst to date, outside of the three “outbreak” countries almost all cases have been from returning medical staff that have worked closely with Ebola patients. The disease is not airborne and similar to HIV can only be contracted through contact with body fluids. Since the beginning of the outbreak, not a single tourist has contracted the Ebola virus. This includes many tourists that have been going to the affected countries.
“SITE will continue to proactively address this situation and support our members. We can’t let the global media sensationalize the crisis. Industry professionals need to talk with suppliers on the ground that can advise them on the reality of the situation,” stated Paul Miller, SITE president 2014. “We also need to shift the mindset of program participants, so communication with qualifiers is key. Companies are doing their due diligence in order to assess the risk to their qualifiers. As an industry, we have to face these challenges all the time and need to ensure that customers have all the facts and are not just reacting based on a fear factor.”