A large group of zebras walk across the vast savanna grassland. After a while, they stop to graze, dislodging impalas who scamper up north. Welcome to Sabi Sand Game Reserve in Mpumalanga, said to be one of the best safari locations in South Africa.
A few kilometers away in Madikwe Reserve, waterbucks and antelopes quench their thirst at a waterhole. In the nearby shrubs, birds chirp away as they await their turn. All is calm until suddenly a family of three elephants emerges from the bushes, heading to the water hole.
This scenario looks and sounds real, yet it is all virtual. There are no tourists here, with or without masks. In fact, South Africa and other countries in Africa popular with tourists closed their borders following the outbreak of COVID-19.
Stuck with empty parks and hotels, African safari organizers are stepping up digitally to cater to millions of people under lockdown globally. For weeks now, thousands of virtual avid travelers have appreciated the beauty of African wildlife, beaches and other tourist sites online.
In Kenya, the Cabinet Secretary for Tourism and Wildlife, Najib Balala, in June 2020 launched a virtual tour live stream campaign to showcase game safaris as part of the ongoing #MagicAwaits campaign led by the Kenya Tourism Board that is aims at ensuring that the world and travelers remain connected to destination Kenya even during the current Covid-19 lock down period when there is restricted movement globally.
Speaking while launching the virtual tour at Nairobi National Park, Mr. Balala noted that the COVID-19 pandemic had taught players in different sectors to be more innovative to keep their businesses afloat during these difficult moments.
The Kenya Tourism Board CEO Betty Radier, told Africa Renewal the virtual tours would ensure that people around the world are connected to the destination during this period.
“You can follow our ‘Magical Kenya’ social media sites for livestream videos of safaris and other attractions. We want to keep consumer interest in the destination high,” said Ms. Radier.
The social media sites offer users different ways to interact with expeditions, including being able to ask questions and a chance to explore Kenya virtually.
“Our marketing strategies will continue to adjust with the currently evolving scenarios. We are currently running campaigns to ensure that Kenya remains an option for the domestic and international traveler now and post COVID-19,” said Ms. Radier
The COVID-19 crisis halted tourism worldwide. All UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) regions have experienced more than 65% of their destinations completely closed to tourism: Africa (74%), Americas (86%), Asia and the Pacific (67%), Europe (74%) and the Middle East (69%). The organization predicts a 20-30% decline in global international tourist arrivals this year.
Before COVID-19, Africa was the second fastest growing region for tourism. In 2018, for example, up to 67 million international tourists visited African countries, generating US$38 billion for the continent, according to the UNWTO. An increase of 4.2% in travelers’ numbers in 2019 and 3-5% in 2020 had been forecast.
The pandemic and measures to control it have hit Africa’s travel and tourism industry hard. According to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) nearly eight million travel and tourism jobs have been lost in Africa alone due to COVID-19. This, along with loss of revenues, prompted an international appeal last May from air transport and tourism bodies to save the sector.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA), the UNWTO, the WTCC, the African Airlines Association (AFRAA) and the Airlines Association of Southern Africa (AASA) asked international financial institutions, country development partners and international donors for $10 billion in relief to support the travel and tourism industry and protect jobs.
Some of the countries affected include Côte d’Ivoire and Zimbabwe, Kenya, Morocco, South Africa, Tunisia, Uganda, whose economies primarily benefit from the tourism industry. Other popular destinations such as the Botswana, Cape Verde and Rwanda, Egypt, Ethiopia, Mauritius, Namibia, Seychelles, the Gambia, are feeling the pinch too.
Getting out of the woods
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, this past June issued a global video message supporting tourism and the role it could play, saying: “Tourism can be a platform for overcoming the pandemic. By bringing people together, tourism can promote solidarity and trust – crucial ingredients in advancing the global cooperation that is so urgently needed at this time”.
As countries begin to ease COVID-19 travel restrictions, several in Africa are making plans to re-open their tourism industries, if they have not already.
Tanzania is open to tourists, while Namibia has reopened its national parks. Morocco has announced plans to re-open in July, and South Africa hopes to welcome travelers by September 2020. Uganda and Mauritius may wait a little longer.
Kenya and Zambia are taking this opportunity to promote domestic tourism as they wait for the lifting of travel restrictions in the following weeks with strict conformity to guidelines and protocols issued by experts.
UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili says the timely and responsible easing of travel restrictions will help ensure the many social and economic benefits that tourism guarantees will return in a sustainable way.
However, despite the optimism in reopening tourism, the UNWTO Chief has called for coordinated protocols and procedures between governments, private sector, and communities on border management, air transportation, hospitality, travel agencies, events, and attractions.
“It is vital, therefore, that the restart of tourism is made a priority and managed responsibly, protecting the most vulnerable and with health and safety as the sector's number one concern”.
While the UNWTO stresses the need for vigilance, responsibility and international cooperation as the world slowly opens up again, the organization has also committed to help Africa grow back stronger and better and for tourism to emerge from this crisis as an important pillar of economies, jobs and sustainability.
In early June 2020, ministers of tourism from Africa and representatives of international organizations and the private sector met virtually to plot a united course towards a stronger and better tourism sector. About 140 participants from 30 countries, including 24 ministers discussed the immediate challenge posed by COVID-19, recovery and resilience. They also discussed the key areas of UNWTO’s Agenda for Africa, a roadmap designed to guide the sector in sustainable growth. In the run-up to the meeting, the Member States took part in an online survey through which they were invited to share their thoughts on how the UNWTO Agenda for Africa can be utilized to accelerate recovery from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and build resilience for the future.
The survey revealed five key areas that African Member States would like to prioritize in order to better support them as they recover from the impact of COVID-19. These include:
· Unlocking growth through investment promotion and public-private partnerships;
· Promoting innovation and technology;
· Promoting travel facilitation, including enhanced connectivity and tourism visa policies;
· Fostering resilience, including through promoting safety and security and crisis communications; and
· Advocating for “Brand Africa”
Mr. Pololikashvili says this feedback from our African Member States will help the UNWTO guide tourism through the challenging months ahead.