Remote. Secluded. Nature based. These are the top three recommendations for outdoor activity during a coronavirus pandemic — and three reasons why African safaris are popular among travelers, especially now as the pandemic has defined “the travel new normal.”

But the last few months of almost no travel has changed the savannah landscapes.

“The parks of Africa have been quietly minding their own business since April and the animals have taken over. Main roads have become tracks, with big cats ambling along looking for breakfast. Airstrips are now prime grazing grounds and the sun rises and sets over the wilderness,” said Charles Norwood, owner of Self Drive Safari Resource and Global Rescue Safe Travel partner.

Africa’s Tourism Economy

Norwood jokes the tourist is the rarest sighting in Africa right now. International travel restrictions have made it difficult for many adventure travelers to go on safari in 2020 and it has taken a toll on the African economy.

Africa received 71.2 million tourists in 2019 and the sector employed nearly 25 million people, according to the World Tourism Organization. Reuters reports the safari industry generates $12.4 billion in annual revenues for Africa’s top wildlife tourist destinations: South Africa, Botswana, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.

Similar to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014, coronavirus brought tourism to a halt. An August 2020 survey by online safari travel platform Safaribookings asked more than 300 tour operators about their business and found almost 93% reported a drop in bookings and at least 75% due to the pandemic.

“Safari destination countries base most of their economy on tourism. Each person involved in tourism supports five to six members of his family and this pandemic is having a terrible effect on the African people,” said Valentina Vallinotto of v-adventures in New York and a Global Rescue Safe Travel partner.

“Poaching is picking up due to the absence of hunters and travelers,” said Chris du Plooy, owner of Chris du Plooy Safaris in Limopo, South Africa and Global Rescue Safe Travel partner.

Many protected areas, national or private, rely on tourism to fund their operations. “Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many rangers have reported a significant drop in tourism, which has led to a lack of funds for operations, resources and even salaries,” said James Slade, Wildlife Crime Prevention Officer at Global Wildlife Conservation. “GWC is currently working with a number of organizations to determine the scale and impact a crash of tourism is having on protected areas around the world.”

“Without tourists, revenue to the National Parks dries up with dire consequences for conservation, anti-poaching and park maintenance,” Norwood said.

Slow Openings

The safari industry, with multiple suppliers in various territories, is banding together to bring back safaris as a high-value and less risky ecotourism option during the coronavirus pandemic.

“International guests can already go on safari in East Africa, with Tanzania, Kenya and Rwanda open for international guests. Zambia recently opened its borders and Seychelles is also open for selected countries,” said Robin Mcleod, operations and product manager at Timeless Africa Safaris and Global Rescue Safe Travel partner. Tanzania, for example, received clearance from the World Travel and Tourism Council in August.

Vallinotto’s v-adventures clients did not cancel, but postponed their trips.

“They have already made bookings for fall 2020 and are ready to travel as soon as possible,” she said. “At our Ndutu Safari Lodge in Tanzania, I prepared a checklist for our staff members. We are also following Tanzania’s national standard operating procedures.”

South Africa is the last to open, but the tourism industry is lobbying the government for an opening earlier than 2021.

“We are hoping international travel to South Africa will be in full swing by the end of September 2020, but our government is very unpredictable and can only hope for the best,” du Plooy said. 

“South Africa will take a little longer, it is very hard to predict when exactly this will be,” Mcleod said. “The government is doing a staged opening, so all practices will be in place and tested as soon the South African government opens the international borders, which we think will be any time from November 2020, although the industry is lobbying for it to be earlier.”

With restrictions changing in Africa almost daily, travellers should research the latest testing and screening requirements, curfews, quarantine lengths and allowed countries.

“Africa has varying degrees of travel advice but, in practical terms, the East African countries seem to have land borders open while South Africa still seems closed to foreigners,” says Norwood. “It’s a disaster for tourism and the sooner we get to testing people off international flights the sooner countries will feel they are able open up to tourism.”

What You Can Do Now

Safaris are perhaps the only vacation where tourists can make a difference by just going on a holiday. Not only do incoming dollars support local economies, tourism also ensures ongoing conservation efforts so wildlife can continue to live and thrive in their natural habitats.

Most safaris are planned well in advance, so travelers should book now for late 2020 or 2021.

“I want to think positive and say we passed the worst. We learned the value of accurate risk analysis, proper terms and conditions and insurance to protect us as tour operators and protect our guests. We learned how to set, log and check reasonable coronavirus safety protocols,” Vallinotto said. “It is not a solution but, with a collective effort, it mitigates the diffusion and helps the tourism business.”

Vallinotto emphasizes lodges, ground transfer operators and local flight carriers are publishing their protocols and procedures.

Mcleod finds the same is true in South Africa, with the tourism industry producing a detailed protocol as to how to best operate during COVID-19.

“This includes airports, transfers, accommodation, tourist attractions, safari and other activities,” he said. “In East Africa, which is already open for international guests, operators and accommodations have implemented detailed operating procedures to safeguard guests.”

“The real game changer will be a vaccine, worldwide and affordable,” Vallinotto said.

But, for now, Mcleod does see a change in customer behavior which will influence how customers travel in the future.

“There will be a need for wide open spaces, remote locations, having fewer people around and getting more in touch with nature and wildlife, all of which Africa can offer in abundance,” Mcleod said. “We definitely believe clients will become more conscious about their health and safety as well as their financial security when booking a holiday.”

“We would love to encourage everyone to support boots-on-the-ground conservation initiatives to help preserve all our wilderness areas, at least until the world settles down,” Norwood said. “And, when you are ready to travel, The Serengeti will be here waiting, in all its bright-eyed and bushy-tailed glory.”

For the latest information on Africa’s risk levels, coronavirus hotspots and country openings, check Global Rescue’s Coronavirus Report.