Debating Ideas is a new section that aims to reflect the values and editorial ethos of the African Arguments book series, publishing engaged, often radical, scholarship, original and activist writing from within the African continent and beyond. It will offer debates and engagements, contexts and controversies, and reviews and responses flowing from the African Arguments books.
Lives lost, millions of people in quarantine, and many others taken ill as infections spread to a peak in a short span of time. These are among the forefront human stories detailing the COVID-19 pandemic. While infection red zones like China and countries in Europe are warming up to possibilities of triumphant recoveries, the pandemic is weaving its way across countries in Africa.
The pandemic’s storyline could be pretty much the same: focusing on infection numbers, of course with region specific variations. However, the human story of the Covid-19 pandemic traverses the confines of health impacts. The tourism sector is one of the vocal spaces outside the confines of health to personify the pandemic.
World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) figures already show that millions of jobs supporting communities in tourism are at stake. By 2018, tourism was supporting 24.3 million African jobs. Small and Medium Entreprises (SMEs) dominate Africa’s tourism landscape, which at present comprises 80% women in its workforce. Many businesses are now bracing for an economic fallout in tourism where hundreds of thousands people are set to lose their income. So unfortunate for a sector yet to heal from the wounds inflicted by the Thomas Cook compulsory liquidation in September 2019.
Following this liquidation, close to 800,000 people who had made advance bookings with the British travel group had their plans cancelled, and are in line for refunds. The travel empire’s global footprint, sourcing accommodation and holiday suppliers from Africa among other places, meant that part of these cancellations were a business loss to the continent, whose tourism supply chain extensively interlinks with other sectors of the economy.
For example, hotels in Egypt, Gambia, Morocco and Tunisia lost important bookings following the collapse of Thomas Cook. Furthermore, there are compensation costs to creditors, employees and other shareholders. The exact figures for these costs are not clear, but estimated at about $600m. Barely a year later, the Covid -19 crisis seems to be hurting communities in tourism badly through inevitable business and job losses.
Even though tourism plays victim to harsh outcomes of the Covid-19 pandemic, there are notable instances where the sector’s activities have always been temperamental and hurt communities badly. Take the example of overtourism in cities. Overtourism occurs when growing visitor numbers to places lead to overcrowding in areas where resident communities suffer the consequences of temporary and seasonal tourism peaks.
While cities that experience overtourism are dependent on a tourism economy, growing tourist numbers force residents out of their homes. Lisbon and Venice are perfect examples in the context of overtourism where economic successes of tourism compromise values for sustainable livable cities and communities.
The impact stemming from Covid-19 related travel restrictions could be a relief in some way to decongest places usually overcrowded by tourists. Tourists have already deserted previously crowded overtourism cities. Nonetheless, the reality of Covid-19 pandemic impacts on tourism makes it urgent for governments and businesses to work out solutions for the sector’s survival. Solutions that prioritize the recovery of the tourism sector, and try to imagine what a post-viral tourism reality would be like are usually solutions that are focused on people’s return to travel in order to revive an already declining tourism demand.
For instance, the industry’s position on postponement of travel bookings to later dates as opposed to cancellations. This is evident in business response incentives like discounted prices for bookings at this time and firmness on bookings for new dates for planned travel-related events in lieu of total cancellations. New priority adjustments in tourism plans are keen to focus on travellers’ needs. However, the most viable solution should envisage a post-Covid-19 tourism where communities in destinations will be ready to host again.
The interruption in tourism is not because people cannot travel now. Tourism is at a standstill because communities in destinations simply cannot host or allow visitors in their regions. Tourism is dependent on the local hospitability culture, now compromised because of the lack of health measures in place to protect host communities from imported infection risks and their consequential burdens of ill health. Africa has always been open for guests at her table of hospitality. Ghana’s Year of Return initiative is a remarkable example to emphasize the conviviality present in Africa as a travel destination.
Down south, a lodge in South Africa radiates values for true African hospitality in its bold commitment to help flatten the infection curve. Its premises have been converted to a central safe home venue for the local community in which it operates, to be used as protective quarantine for the elderly and persons with preexisting conditions. This shows that it is possible and equally important to have people in local communities at the heart of all tourism plans for post-Covid-19 recovery. Covid-19 recovery should not be about saving tourism for the sole benefit of those with economic interests in it, but sustaining communities.
Perhaps a lesson we are yet to come to terms with in this pandemic is that the kind of tourism which puts profit before principle, and consequently undermines global values for sustainable development is not mandatory. This is the tourism that we have when plans for development think of communities as an afterthought, second to fulfilling the needs of tourists. For instance, there are notable examples across the continent where infrastructure development was only made possible because of its potential in attracting tourists.
Whereas this could be a good thing, the downside is that such an approach definitely makes the local resident communities invisible in many development plans by government and business. Unfortunately, this includes plans on issues that visibly affect them like the Covid-19 concern. This could be the challenge today for tourism host communities in Africa, as businesses and governments strategize on how to manage the pandemic.
Tourism’s recovery is not exclusively dependent on lifting Covid-19 imposed travel bans to have visitor numbers back, but depends largely on availability of hospitality from local destination communities. Travel destinations are homes for people before they become places to visit. They need to be safe for people who live in them first, before being open for tourists to stream in. If not, the kind of tourism that we will have to destinations in Africa risks being a disaster on display, casting the continent and its people on a sick pedestal.
Communities in tourist destinations will hurt more when remedial plans for a post-viral tourism remain indifferent to the needs of local people who risk infection and fatalities from Covid-19 at the expense of tourism income themed strategies. Africa cannot afford to ignore its public health priorities for the sake of saving an economic sector. Instead, it can work on approaches to thrive in both, and rethink vulnerabilities in its (over) dependence on tourism.