Africa's Ebola-Free Countries Are Struggling to Attract Tourists

In the eyes of the geographically oblivious, the entire continent appears infected—which is taking a toll on regional economies.

Radu Sigheti/Reuters

It may be a constant source of international ribbing that Americans have little, if any, awareness of the world outside their border. But this geographic illiteracy isn't restricted to citizens of the United States: The British apparently can't be counted on to identify very many states beyond California and Texas.

While no researcher that I'm aware of has formally tested Europeans or Americans on African geography, tourists' collective response to the Ebola epidemic—which is concentrated in West Africa—provides plenty of evidence that their obliviousness is not restricted to the Northern Hemisphere. For fear of catching Ebola, would-be tourists have been avoiding countries such as Tanzania and South Africa—even though they're farther away from the outbreak than many European capital cities.

Dropoffs in tour bookings and hotel reservations will be, and have been, problematic for the countries south of the Sahara Desert, which, The Economist estimates, depend on tourism revenues for about 10 percent of their GDPs. Safari reservations through one agency have fallen between 20 and 70 percent, Tanzania's hotels have only half  the number of guests they expected booked for next year, and Gambia has seen a 60 percent drop in tourism this year. A South African official told USA Today that the money a single tourist brings can sustain roughly eight jobs in tourist-dependent industries.

It's more than a little maddening that the livelihood of millions hinges on the media's obsession with a disease that is only a pressing problem 3,500 miles away—that's like someone objecting to a trip to Kabul because of an epidemic in London. On top of that, to avoid the southern and eastern parts of the continent is to ignore the fact that there are more flights from Sierra Leone and Liberia to Europe than there are to other African countries—which means that potentially contagious people have a relatively harder time getting to southern Africa.

One irony here is that Ebola's reach pales in comparison to more threatening diseases such as AIDS and malaria. Another is that the United States and Spain have actually seen deaths from Ebola, while most African countries haven't. And another is that in order to make ends meet, the tour guides who are now seeing big drops in bookings might turn to poaching the very animals that they used to show tourists. Ebola, in other words, has in the minds of many infected not only Guineans, Liberians, and Sierra Leoneans, but their entire continent as well.