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Too Little Too Late: The Impact of covid-19 on the Conservation Tourism in Africa

Quite some time has passed since the globe has fallen victim to one of the most pressing crises of our times. Many things have happened since December 2019. Yet, we are still only at the very tip of the iceberg when it comes to actually processing, understanding, and analyzing how the pandemic has changed the world around us. One of the areas where further research is necessary, as the current evidence is deeply alarming, is the field of animal protection, specifically in Africa.

How is it related to the travel industry? Well, turns out tourism is an important driver for managing national parks and conservation projects and is a job source for people living near those areas. Consequently, when travel to such wildlife sites is canceled en masse, both jobs and parks management are at stake.

Just to place those ideas in context: in Africa, half of all the people working in tourism lost their jobs. According to a recent United Nations Conference on Trade and Development Report, the global tourism sector could witness losses of USD$1.7-US$2.4 trillion by the end of 2021. On the continent in question, these losses are forecasted at USD$170-253 billion.

Once we analyze the current state of wildlife conservation in Africa, those numbers start making sense. In South Africa, SANParks management lost 96% of their tourism flows due to the lockdown measures. This amounted to about 90% of tourism revenue, highlighting the volatility of a sector that’s dependent on a single primary income source.

In Uganda, 88% of national parks’ revenue is usually generated from tourist entrance fees. Thus, the pandemic effectively wiped out roughly US$1.4 million from the Uganda Wildlife Authority’s annual budget. This hindered such activities as anti-poaching which, unfortunately, has doubled in the country’s two largest parks between February and May 2020.

While the contributions of travel and tourism to African GDP reduced in line with the global 2020 average, Africans working in the tourism sector had to put up with more severe job losses, falling 29.3% (representing 7.2 million jobs) compared to the global average of 21.5%. For example, in Botswana, the lockdowns resulted in about 99% of the country’s tourism workforce being temporarily or permanently laid off.

So, what could be done to help both people and the wildlife on the continent? Several strategies have been proposed, including domestic tourism, contactless and virtual tourism, and novel conservation financing like direct payments for wildlife conservation. Another potential opportunity is bank support for the safari operators, which could manifest itself in reduced rates, penalty waivers, and loan repayments rescheduling.

Apart from those, many countries have implemented schemes to encourage residents to travel locally and visit national parks. The Uganda Wildlife Authority, for example, cut entrance fees to national parks by 50%. Botswana went even further and cut the fees by up to 70%. Innovative solutions have also been proposed. In South Africa, some wildlife reserves adopted virtual safaris as a response to the global pandemic. Hopefully, the conservation tourism industry could get the so-much-needed gulp of fresh air, once both global and local inoculation rates reach a more satisfactory mark.

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