Despite Ebola Outbreak, South and East Africa Are Actually Safe for Tourists

Misconceptions over the Ebola virus and Africa’s geography shouldn’t deter travelers By: Natalie Chudnovsky
A satellite map of Africa shows the continent’s topography // © 2014 Creative Commons user <a...
A satellite map of Africa shows the continent’s topography // © 2014 Creative Commons user newportgeographic

Illustrated Map

Click through to see an illustrated map that shows Africa’s scale by demonstrating that the landmasses of the U.S., Europe, Japan, China and India all fit into the African continent. // © Creative Commons Kai Krause

The Details

African Travel, Inc.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

World Health Organization

If you have noticed Africa making headlines lately, it’s probably in relation to Ebola virus. 

The disease has had a 50 percent fatality rate and 2,811 reported deaths in West Africa as of Sept. 19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And while the outbreak is terrifying in nature and scope, the fear of the disease is more rampant than the outbreak itself.  

Cases of the virus have been reported in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Senegal. However, panic has taken its toll on economies and tourism industries across the entire continent. 

Hannes Boshoff, managing director at Erm Tours, told Reuters that nearly 80 percent of his Asian clientele cancelled upcoming trips to South Africa. According to The Wall Street Journal, Tanzania’s government tourist board said tour operators have been experiencing cancellations, even though there have been no reported cases in the country and individuals arriving from international flights are being checked. Last but not least, Tanzania’s Daily News reports that walk-through thermal airport scanners have been installed in five international airports in Tanzania, with more stringent security measures to come.

“We’ve had concerned callers trying to find out the situation,” said Jim Holden, president of African Travel, Inc., during an interview with TravelAge West. “But once we explained that where they were going was further away from the outbreak of Ebola than Los Angeles is from New York, they relaxed and continued with their plans.” 

Holden said East and South Africa are more than 3,500 miles from the Ebola epicenter in West Africa.  He believes the hysteria surrounding travel to these parts of Africa is largely due to a misconception of Africa’s geography and the notion that it’s all just one country. 

“Many in the U.S. think of the ‘United States of Africa’ rather than 54 different countries, all of which are totally different with diverse histories and backgrounds,” said Holden. “The continental U.S. fits into the continent of Africa no fewer than three times. It’s enormous.” 

Daniel Epstein, a spokesperson for the World Health Organization (WHO), also spoke to TravelAge West. He said that the risk of visitors becoming infected with the disease is extremely low, even if traveling to areas where cases have been reported. 

“Ebola transmission requires direct contact with blood, secretions or other bodily fluids from infected persons, dead bodies or animals,” said Epstein. “These are considered unlikely exposures for the average traveler.” 

According to WHO, further examples of high-risk transmission situations include handling contaminated objects such as needles, contact with fruit bats and consuming infected bushmeat (meat from wild animals in tropical forests). 

WHO recommends no travel restrictions for Africa, even in countries with cases of the disease, and says that the possibility for transmission of the virus during air travel is low. Though many airlines have stopped flights to infected countries, WHO warns that travel restrictions are economically damaging and impede relief efforts. 

Alternately, CDC’s travel guidelines are far more rigorous, recommending to avoid “nonessential” travel in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, and practicing “enhanced precautions” in Republic of Congo and Nigeria.

Epstein said those planning to visit unaffected African countries have no cause to change their travel plans. Holden recommends that travelers be cautious in the same way they are when traveling to any new place. 

“It’s a question of being aware,” said Holden. “Work with a knowledgeable and experienced operator who can inform you of the situation and the best place for you to go. Africa is open for business.”