Eye on West Africa

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Travel used to be really exciting, didn’t it? Especially air travel – going to the airport, viewing the planes, boarding and taking off, heading for pastures new.  Even travelling around Africa could be fun, with travellers’ tales about how awful this airport was, on which side of the aircraft to sit to see Kilimanjaro, and tips on what to do and to avoid.

Today, travel is often a real chore. In some cases it’s downright unpleasant until you reach cruising altitude. Airport security is tighter and travellers have to get to the airport earlier and earlier to navigate increasing security checks.

On a recent trip from Lagos to Kigali, I had 12 people check my passport, and three health checks, before I boarded my flight.

Before check-in, my bags were passed through a screening machine; two or three people looked at passport, another two opened my bag for a cursory check at its contents. After that came the personal screening – laptop, belt, shoes, fluids, jackets, phones – with differing requirements at each check point. At passport control more bodies checked my passport. Then there was currency control, and food and drugs control. At the gate I encountered more baggage screening and more passport checking. 

The Ebola crisis has prompted airports, airlines and governments to implement checks to avoid letting potentially infected passengers from boarding a plane out of a high risk area and/or entering a country that currently isn’t at risk. So, aside from the checks by the Ministry of Health before you check in, a second by the airline, and a third by the Ministry of Health at passport control, I also had to fill out a form about who I am, how I feel, and where I’ve been recently. It asks “have you been to Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia or Nigeria?” On arrival in Kigali, filling out a second form, I ticked yes to Nigeria.

The health official was shaken. “You’ve ticked yes?” he asked. “You’ve been to Nigeria?” Well yes, that’s where the flight came from. I live there. The thing is, he couldn’t work out whether or not that was a problem. He hadn’t been told what to do if someone ticked “yes”. In the end, I was allowed through, having had my temperature taken again.

Everything I encounter at airports is so disjointed, and unnecessary. I’m not saying that airports shouldn’t have security, or that there shouldn’t be an Ebola check. I want to be secure when I fly, and I fully understand the terrors of spreading Ebola – it scares me too. But why does my temperature need to be taken three times within the space of ten minutes? Why do 12 people feel the need to check my passport when I am leaving Lagos? In most airports, including most in Africa, it’s just three people – check-in, passport control and boarding.

The reason for this duplication of security is that no-one trusts anyone else. There is no one co-ordinating the physical security of travel, or the Ebola screening. I don’t get the sense that travellers are treated as guests to be welcomed. I feel that most visitors will feel anxious and not want to repeat the experience. That’s bad for business.

The Ebola crisis in West Africa is seriously impacting the travel and tourism business. In Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, where the outbreak is at its most serious, there is no business for the hotels. In Lagos, where Ebola has not taken hold, the hotels are running at 30 to 40% below expectations for this time period. The schools have been closed until mid-October, and the event centres are empty. People don’t want to take the risk of going to places where they might contract the disease, and that means fewer international travellers and the cancellation of social events; folks are staying home.

This attitude isn’t isolated to West Africa. While in East Africa, I heard stories of American and Chinese tourists cancelling trips to Tanzania, for fear of Ebola. The mortality rate is so high and there is currently no way of vaccinating against the disease, so it’s understandable that people are thinking twice about travelling to Africa. Despite the fact that it’s a large continent, the possibility of the disease spreading is real.

In addition to the human tragedy, there is the impact on the business world, which links back into the populace, as workers have their wages reduced, or are laid off. 

If people are afraid of travelling, of going to restaurants and events, there is little the hospitality industry can do about it. All we can do is pray for a speedy end to the Ebola crisis, and a speedy recovery for those directly affected by it.

Trevor Ward
MD: W Hospitality