Eye on West Africa

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There’s really only one news item in West Africa right now, and that’s the impact of the Ebola outbreak is having on the lives of people and health of businesses. Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, fragile post-conflict states before Ebola, are now crippled and any improvement of their international reputations have been destroyed. I suspect the stigma will remain for some time.

Here in Nigeria, the authorities seem to have tackled the threat really well with, at the time of going to print, ‘only’ eight deaths and no new cases reported for some weeks.  Several West African countries, including Cameroon, Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire have had no reported cases.

Whilst the loss of human life has been tragic, there is also a significant impact on our business lives. I wrote last month about the increased hassle in travelling in the region, hassle that has, it seems, successfully halted the spread of Ebola in Nigeria and elsewhere. But the daily lives of Nigerians are being affected, with temperatures checked on entry to many public places, including schools, bars and offices. 

Travel, both international and domestic, has been severely affected – international travellers do not want to travel to a region where they might contract the disease, nor do domestic travellers want to be on aeroplanes, confined into spaces where they might come into contact with an infected person. Gatherings of people, such as conferences and social events, are being cancelled.

I do understand this, but the loss of business at hotels, restaurants, and events centres is contributing to the human tragedy. Empty hotels in Freetown (Sierra Leone) and Monrovia (Liberia) cannot pay their staff, who therefore suffer deprivation. The whole value chain suffers, not just directly as the hotels lay off staff, but it is also seen in the businesses that supply those hotels, and the staff that work in those allied businesses.

Here in Lagos (Nigeria), the hotels are running at low occupancies, some below 30%. Restaurants and bar, however, seem to be faring slightly better.  Ebola is only transmitted through contact with bodily fluids, and not through the air, so these places are seen to be safe, unlike close contact weddings and other social events.

In Accra (Ghana) too, the hotels are suffering, despite the fact that the country is currently Ebola-free – the Ghanaian government announced that it would not host any further conferences this year, and the lack of confidence this announcement engendered meant that several events were cancelled. Unfortunately the hotel industry relies heavily on MICE business.

The Cameroon-Nigeria border has been completely closed, and flights between the two countries are not operating. Partial closure of the border is nothing new, but complete closure has meant all trade between the two countries has been stopped, and the cessation of air services means no travel at all. Again, the knock on effect on the local economies is huge. The Government of Cameroon, which initiated the closure, is giving no information regarding when the border will be reopened, and when flights can resume.

Recovery from the crisis will be all about confidence. The medical authorities will, we pray, announce the end of the outbreak sometime soon. But travel, and therefore the hospitality business, is not going to recover until travellers are confident it is safe.  When the United States issued travel warnings due to terrorist threats in the beginning of 2014, travellers were nervous, but they were still travelling – clearly not everyone was too concerned with bomb threats. But Ebola is upfront and personal; however careful you might be about where to go and what you do, you could catch it.

Inviting people to travel again after a terrorist attack, once the authorities have given the all-clear, is fairly easy.  Inviting people back after Ebola will require our guests, and their families, to be absolutely sure they are safe, and that’s a hard call.

Responsible feedback to our guests, based on real evidence, will help to restore their confidence. It is not going to be quick, and here in Nigeria we have the added issue of the forthcoming elections in February 2015 – many might say that they will wait and see what happens before returning to the country. One hotel general manager told me that October is looking more positive, in terms of bookings, than it has done for a few months – we hope this is the first sign of our recovery.

Trevor Ward
CEO: W Hospitality