When the Coronavirus pandemic, hit the world like a storm razing through a flat plain, the tourism world was taken by shock of course just like all the other sector of the economy were. In its wake, it has left a clear trail of destruction and the world is yet to fully count and have a complete understanding of the losses the economies are going to suffer because of COVID-19. All economies are registering a contraction in their growth all thanks to the wrath of this unforgiving disease. For the airline and the global tourism industry, the pandemic has been really disastrous given its timing that coincided with the pick of the global tourism season in which hundreds of millions of travellers usually pack up their travel bags and off they go visiting different destinations around the world. When Khimbini Hlongwane, a tour operator in South Africa spent most of his small safari tour company’s savings on the deposit for a minibus in February, he thought it was a safe bet simply because business was booming as revenues for the previous year had doubled and bookings from Brazilians, Brits and Americans to visit Africa to have a glance at the spectacular wildlife in South Africa’s National Parks were up.
In a strange twist of fate and luck, the Coronavirus pandemic hit and this prompted local governments around the world imposed lockdown measures, borders were closed and international travel halted. What seemed to be an incredible season ahead, has now made a nosedive and plummeted into the abyss of disaster. The tour operators who had geared themselves up to reap big from the anticipated big season are now seating home with their vehicles parked. To add salt to the injury, these are now struggling to repay to the finance institutions which had lent them money to inject in their businesses. Things are very, very challenging right now because all business is gone right now.
Hlongwane says he’s been forced to stop paying the salaries of his five employees and he isn’t alone in this situation. All the way from the sprawling savanna lands of Kenya’s Masai Mara to the Okavango Delta in Botswana, Africa’s multi-billion-dollar safari industry is in disarray not knowing where this unfolding situation is leading it to.
Before all hell broke lose, this African humongous industry generated annual revenues of 12.4 billion dollars for the continent’s top wildlife tourist destinations – South Africa, Botswana, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia – according to an estimate by Safari Bookings. But in a period of only 3 months, a survey of 300 tour operators by Safari Bookings an online travel platform, has revealed that nearly 93% of all tour operators registered on its platform have reported a drop in their bookings by at least 75%.
This downturn doesn’t only affect tour companies and their immediate employees but it also has a big trickle-down effect to hundreds of thousands of people in rural communities that are seeing their livelihoods shattered. For example, roughly half of the residents in Mabarhule, on the edge of Kruger National Park, were already jobless even before the Coronavirus found its way to South Africa and these relied on petty jobs from the tourism sector like freelance tour guiding where they would make about 33 $ per tour conducted and it was on these earning they managed to keep their families fed. But with all tourists gone and not quite certain when they will return these people are finding themselves falling with no safety net harness below to cushion the fall.
Even though many small tour operators like Khimbini Hlongwane had saved some of their money in the banks, they are now just running out of money because even the little savings they had in their bank accounts are fast dwindling and they aren’t being replenished, so if things don’t change for the better they too will start starving. The lack of tourist dollars is also forcing wildlife projects across Africa to make cuts. Conservationists fear the growing desperation in rural communities could fuel a wave of poaching.