Tourism is and has been the world’s largest industry up until the Covid-19 pandemic hit in December last year.
Countries both in the developed and developing world have seen ecotourism become the fastest growing sector within the tourism industry. With the potential it has, many governments have invested in the sector by ensuring that players are able to maximize output and productivity through rebates and tax relief which saw the sector grow in leaps and bounds.
However, the pandemic put a damper stifling the growth of the sector and in some cases rolling back gains made over the past few years.
In East Africa, ecotourism is a powerful economic force since it has largely made an impact in preventing environmental destruction when correctly managed. With the promotion of community development and empowerment, the sector has created employment in areas that were previously failing under what was commonly referred to as marginalized communities.
As a subset of tourism, ecotourism is complicated since it involves many different players from governments to individuals, experts in specific conservation areas and communities among others. With this, the disruption brought on by the pandemic meant that all these stakeholders were affected. Ecotourism occurs in many communities and is not limited to just game parks and conservancies.
According to the East African Community Business Council (EABC), the general tourism and logistics sectors have been hardest hit since the pandemic broke out. These two sectors are critical to the region’s economy which registered a revenue decline by 92 per cent for tourism and 75 per cent for the logistics sector. With ecotourism being a major employer through the involvement of communities, the sector needs a boost to help it recover from the negative effects of the pandemic.
To help the overall tourism sector recover, the EABC is calling on governments in the region to apply a coordinated approach in the fight against Covid-19. EABC notes that this calls for the adoption of flexible and adaptable measures as a region, geared towards cushioning the economies from the socio-economic impacts of the pandemic.
The EABC also says that there is a need to ensure continuity of business by the provision of liquidity to the most affected sectors while also monitoring EAC priority value chains to ensure that they are not adversely affected. For tourism which depends largely on travel, the EABC is asking that governments ensure the adoption of open skies policy.
Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda have an open skies policy, but Tanzania is yet to sign since it has not bought into the idea.
A 2015 report by InterVISTAS, UKAid and EABC shows that liberalisation of the skies has led to increased traffic volumes, greater connectivity and choice and lower fares.
The report further notes that the benefits of air service liberalisation extend well beyond the aviation industry and passengers contribute to greater trade and tourism, inward investment, productivity growth, increased employment and economic development.
“Quantitative analysis, based on data from East Africa, provided robust and compelling evidence that liberalisation leads to 9 per cent lower average fares and a 41 per cent increase in frequencies, which in turn stimulate passenger demand,” the report adds.
Highlights from the report indicated that liberalisation between the five EAC countries could result in additional 46,320 jobs and US$202.1 million per annum in GDP at the time.
The EABC’s calls for opening the skies could not have been better timed. With the economic heat the region has received from the pandemic, EAC partner states should work towards opening up their skies if they are to gain from tourism.
In addition, EAC governments need to safeguard regulations and standard operating procedures that are regional in nature to protect nascent businesses from shock and also ensure that regional corridors are operational without hampering movement across the region.
As a result of the pandemic, the EAC will lose between US$37 billion and US$79 billion according to the World Bank which predicts that economic growth will decline from 2.4 per cent in 2019 to between 2.1 per cent and -5.1 per cent this year.
The study, “Impact of Covid-19 on Business and Investment in the EAC and Proposed Recovery Strategy” conducted by EABC and GIZ (the German Development Bank) was meant to highlight the impact of Covid-19 on businesses and investments in the EAC.
For the ecotourism sector to thrive post-Covid-19, all stakeholders wishing to partake in the gains from the process must collaborate to ensure that not only the wildlife and habitat are protected, but also that the venture remains beneficial to local communities, and those who traditionally manage the wildlands.
To build resilience in the sector, being sensitive to all issues and parties and consistent communication with transparency and realism will help create a sustainable enterprise.
East Africa, just like the rest of the world was looking forward to a productive 2020 where projected GDP growth was seemingly sustainable. With the pandemic lasting as long as it has, and now with the second phase in the year’s 3rd quarter hitting much of the developed world both in North America and Europe, those dreams have been dashed as businesses seek only to remain afloat.
As a whole, Africa’s tourism sector was set for a lucrative year. As the world’s second-fastest-growing tourism industry, the continent was projected to rake in billions of dollars from the travel sub-sector but Covid-19 struck suddenly halting tourist travels and grinding the industry to a sudden halt.
For ecotourism, it is conservation in peril unless travel resumes without rigid restrictions.
Conservation efforts are suffering and on the shores of the largest lake in Africa, Lake Victoria, visitors have declined. The lake which is shared by Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania has a number of wildlife conservation centres which attract visitors to the rich flora and fauna.
But with the pandemic-induced lockdowns, the centres have closed to visitors. These closures mean that the centres can no longer collect revenue from tourists.
As such, the survival of the ecotourism sector in East Africa is pegged on eased travel restrictions and governments offering incentives for businesses in the value chain in order to stay afloat.