South Africa's Business Scene Struggles to Overcome Ebola Fears
|The South Africa tourism industry is beginning to see a major dip in advance bookings to the destination due to the Ebola scare.|
As the Ebola outbreak continues to claim victims throughout Western Africa, both business and leisure travel to the rest of the continent has also been affected. In particular, despite great improvements in infrastructure, South Africa is seeing a significant downturn in business, and the industry may suffer simply for having “Africa” in its name.
The Tourism Board
South African Tourism North America President Sthu Zungu noted that the distance between South Africa and the affected areas is the same distance between New York and California. Still, she acknowledged, the virus is “a concern” for the country, and emphasized that despite the distance, the nation was taking precautions to “keep travelers safe and screen passengers.”
Upon arrival in Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport, she noted, passengers are screened for fever before they reach customs. “When people travel, they want to be safe,” she said. “South Africa is doing everything it can. We want people to understand where the cases are happening...We are doing our best to support our brothers [in West Africa] and make sure the virus is contained.” Traveler safety is “a priority” for the country’s tourism scene, she added.
“Our flights have been quite full over the last few months, but the concern is going forward,” Todd M. Neuman, executive vice president of South African Airways told IMR. “The concern is the impact this will have on advanced bookings and we are starting to see a downward trend year over year as far as advanced bookings go. Usually this is when business starts really picking up (to South Africa) and that's the biggest concern. What will we see three, four, five months down the road?”
Neuman said that SAA has already seen a roughly five percent reduction compared to this time period last year in terms of advanced bookings, but noted that South African Airways will continue to fly to South Africa with no changes in the airline’s service patterns or schedule for now.
“We have been getting some cancelations and we’ve gotten reports from the South African Tourism Board about cancelations as well,” Neuman added. “We’ve also started to hear from people on the ground at South African hotels and safari lodges and they are saying that it is beginning to have an impact on business to the destination.”
According to IMR partner MeetPie, South Africa’s meetings and events industry has been “wiped out” by the outbreak. Mike Waller, CEO at DMC Dragonfly Africa, whose head office is in Johannesburg, said: “Last month we had a U.S. insurance company cancel at very short notice. It was a group of 50 top achievers on a high-end trip. They lost far more than we did.
“They said that for various reasons they couldn’t travel any more, but I have no doubt Ebola was the influencing factor. To cancel two weeks out, they had a lot to lose. It must have been the reason.”
The firm has had two postponements and four outright cancelations so far. Waller said that it was a similar story for across the industry, despite the relative distance from the main West Africa outbreak.
“We’ve all been impacted, but we’re no more vulnerable to the disease than other parts of the world. We’ve lost big business out of Asia as well. It seems that Asians, having gone through SARS, they are particularly sensitive to it.
“The businesses are no fools, they all have access to maps, they can see we are no further from the area than places in Europe. They understand the geography. Africa has a stigma attached to it in terms of facilities and hygiene."
Key Points to Remember
Elizabeth Gordon, co-founder and CEO at tour operator-cum-agency Extraordinary Journeys, said that her team is spending “a lot of time” talking with clients, “explaining why South Africa is safe and what is in place. Africa is a huge continent.” She has even developed a bullet-point list of facts to help calm any concerns:
- The Ebola outbreak is only concentrated in certain countries in West Africa
- Johannesburg is further from the outbreak than London, Dubai, Rome and Rio de Janeiro
- Cape Town is as far away and is closer to Antarctica than West Africa!
- There have been no Ebola cases or arrivals in South Africa in this epidemic
- Since 2010 ALL arriving passengers into Johannesburg have been screened for raised body temperatures
- There are 11 medical facilities trained to isolate any Ebola case that arrives into the country
- South Africa has a sophisticated medical infrastructure to keep our country and sub-continent free of the virus