We are living in unprecedented times and watching in disbelief as the novel coronavirus tears through the world with the force of a hurricane. The economic toll of this pandemic is already being felt globally, with production coming to a grinding halt.
Tourism will be among the hardest hit industries and it could take much longer to recover.
The $8.8 trillion dollar tourism industry is responsible for an estimated 319 million jobs, or roughly one in 10 people working on the planet.
Since most governments now have travel bans in effect, revenues from tourism will continue to plummet until people can once again trust that life is normal enough for them to get on planes and see the world.
In Africa, the impact on tourism from Covid-19 will be profound. What many people don’t understand is that the loss of tourism in Africa has the potential to wipe out entire communities, including the surrounding wild animal landscapes they coexist with.
According to research done in 2019, tourism drives 8.5 per cent of Africa’s economy, and supports 24 million jobs. But it won’t just be Africa’s economy that will take a big hit. The downstream casualty will be the continent’s wildlife and wild lands.
Conservation has proven that it pays for itself in Africa. Nations have capitalised on tourism revenues to expand protected areas and establish natural resource management systems that have seen flora and fauna thrive, even as the world reels from wanton environmental destruction and biodiversity loss.
In turn, these thriving ecosystems playing host to dynamic wildlife populations including elephants, gorillas and big carnivores are attracting tourists in the millions.
Experts predict that by 2030, the continent could receive as many as 134 million visitors a year.
Where has wildlife tourism made a critical difference? The story of Rwanda and its gorillas illustrates an interesting balance.
In 2008, African Wildlife Foundation, International Gorilla Conservation Camp and Governor’s Camp Collection established Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge in the Virunga Massif highlands of Rwanda, home to Africa’s last remaining population of mountain gorillas.
The lodge would provide a base for tourists to go gorilla trekking and allow them to view and interact with gorillas in their natural habitats. This was only possible because aggressive conservation efforts led by the Rwandan government had brought back the charismatic animals from the brink of extinction, shoring up population numbers from 280 gorillas in the 1980s to over 1,000 today.
Since the lodge started running, it has delivered over $3.3 million in revenues, money which has been distributed to the local communities through the Sabyinyo Community Livelihoods Association. The Rwandan government in 2018 issued 15,000 gorilla permits worth $19.2 million to tourists.
African governments will support conservation efforts if they can be incentivised to do so through revenues from tourism, while tourists will only pay to visit protected areas if they are assured that they will see healthy populations of the animal of their choice.
For that reason, we must look over the horizon, and encourage state departments and lawmakers in countries impacted by the virus not to pursue isolationist policies in the aftermath of the crisis.
In addition, we must fight against the potential spread of disinformation about the safety of travel to Africa.
Kaddu Sebunya is African Wildlife Foundation Chief Executive Officer.