Fear VS. Logic: Ebola Epidemic Hurting African Tourism

27 Oct 2014

The African tourism industry is facing the harsh outcomes from concerns surrounding the Ebola epidemic despite the distance between the West African countries with Ebola cases – Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone – and the popular tourist destinations.

Many African countries, such as Kenya and South Africa, heavily rely on the revenue that international tourism produces, however potential visitors appear increasingly hesitant to travel to the continent where the disease originated.

According to economist, Bismarck Rewane, in spite of Nigeria being declared virus-free, occupancy rates in five-star hotels in the commercial capital Lagos have dramatically fallen to 30 per-cent instead of the 65 per-cent that is typical at this time of year. Moreover, several conferences have been postponed whilst bars and restaurants in the city have reported even worse loses.

Hoteliers in Kenya have also expressed concern about the outbreak hurting business, with the Diani Sea Resort near Mombasa revealing that there was no international arrivals for two weeks in August.

Additionally, Netherlands-based firm Safari Bookings has reported that more than half of 500 operators it questioned one month ago claimed bookings were down between 20 and 70 per-cent.

The fear is being exacerbated by some media organisations, particularly in the US, which is in full panic mode over Ebola. CNN have resorted to hysterical headlines such as ‘Ebola: 'The ISIS of biological agents?' whilst Fox News broadcasters have proclaimed “Why don’t we just shut down the flights and secure the borders?”

However, Dr Brent Richie, from the UQ Business School at The University of Queensland, who specialises in tourism crisis recovery marketing, believes tourists are dealing with a ‘fear vs. logic’ mentality and are unaware that many tourist destinations in Africa aren’t affected by the virus.

“I think tourists don’t know where the danger zones are – safety and security is one of the main concerns when travelling,” Dr Richie said.

“So if [tourists] have perceptions that the whole of Africa is effected then obviously they’re going to have their holidays elsewhere.”

“The risk might not be real but it’s what’s in people’s minds that makes them not want to travel to African countries.”

Furthermore, Dr Richie asserts that “it’s a pretty common problem” and that similar issues have happened in the past – namely the Victorian bushfires and political instability in the Middle East.

“Tourists from Europe and North America actually think the entire Middle East has political stability issues when that’s not the case,” Dr Richie said.

“Some tourists avoid the countries when the issues are actually in a particular area [separate from tourist destinations.”

“Generally, what you find is that the further people are from the event the broader they think the problem is and that will affect their travel behaviour.”

However, Dr Richie states that some type of marketing campaign that stresses which parts of Africa are Ebola-free but feels that the uncertainty that surrounds this disease may stop the camping from being successful.

“Generally in these kinds of situations, destination marketers from other countries will try to explain which parts of Africa are okay and are open for business. It’s more of a reassurance campaign using public relations,” Dr Richie said.

“It’s challenging because with this particular disease it’s uncertain how rapidly it’s going to evolve or if it’s going to jump across borders.”

“Although they could invest money into time and communication, people’s perceptions still might not change because of the uncertainty about how far the disease has spread. That’ll be a problem.”

“It might not work until the disease has been eradicated. At that point, money on marketing and better communication can be better spent because people’s minds are aware that the crisis is over.”

Knowing this, Dr Richie stresses the importance that marketing organisations need to “think carefully and act responsibly” when it comes to attracting tourists to Africa.

“It’s complicated because, obviously, people’s livelihoods rely on tourism but you don’t want to create a situation where tourists come in and spread the disease like we are seeing with the people that are returning home,” Dr Richie said.