Travel agents on an Abercrombie & Kent fam trip in November were unfazed by Ebola since they were in Kenya, an East African country thousands of miles away from the afflicted West African countries. // © 2014 Mindy Poder
Feature image (above): Less crowds in Africa’s safari countries means closer and more private experiences at national parks and conservancies. // © 2014 Mindy Poder
I recently returned from a trip to Eastern Africa and Southern Africa. “No, I didn’t get Ebola,” “no, I’m not worried about getting Ebola” and “no, I don’t think Ebola is going to somehow spoil my safari” are phrases I had to repeat more times than I could count. It turns out that there’s a big misunderstanding about the continent of Africa among those who have never traveled to one of its 54 unique countries — especially among Americans whose job does not involve globetrotting or planning travel.
I realize that most travel agents reading this are not the problem, though they could be part of the solution. In fact, times such as these offer great opportunities for travel agents to demonstrate their expertise and insight as a travel expert. Those who have traveled in Africa, especially recently, are among the best ambassadors that this enormous continent has.
“Africa is so big,” said Reuben Makau, general manager of Abercrombie & Kent Kenya. “There’s some misperception that Africa is a small village, but we have no clue in Kenya what happens week-to-week in West Africa. We only watch it in the news.”
Like us in America, East Africans and Southern Africans are thousands of miles away from the worst afflicted countries in West Africa. These nations — Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone — are the only three African countries deemed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to have “widespread transmission,” and they make up a very small portion of the continent.
By now, it’s likely you’ve seen the “True Size of Africa Map,” which shows how some of the largest countries and regions in the world snugly fit together in the scope of the continent. If you haven’t, here’s a spoiler: Africa fits the entirety of Europe, China, India, Japan and even all 50 of the United States.
“We understand people’s feelings, but the distances are clear: West Africa is nearer to Europe than it is to East Africa and Southern Africa,” Makau said. “We have no incidence of Ebola in our region.”
According to Makau, it would take two weeks to walk by foot from Kenya to West Africa. Kenya is 3,293 miles from Liberia and 3,523 miles from Sierra Leone. That’s a long and brisk walk, with plenty of impenetrable forest along the way.
Unlike the U.S., Kenya has never had any cases of Ebola reported. Furthermore, Kenya Airways, the only local carrier connecting the two sides of the continent, was among the first to stop flights to and from West Africa.
In countries that do accept connections from West Africa, such as South Africa, airport staffers are very vigilant. Before getting my passport stamped at O. R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, I had to fill out a detailed questionnaire related to Ebola. Even if I were tempted to lie, I had to pass a temperature screening that could identify Ebola-like symptoms with more accuracy than a lie detector.
I underwent similar procedures in neighboring Namibia, another country with no reports of Ebola. The protocol was efficient and painless, and I left feeling confident that no one with Ebola was going to get through to those countries.
In addition to the distance from West Africa to Southern Africa and East Africa, the fact that I could only get Ebola from the transfer of bodily fluids left me pretty confident that, even if I visited West Africa, I wouldn’t get Ebola.
Because Africa is so big, I actually did have to touch down in West Africa (though I never had to get off the plane). My South African Airways flight home from Johannesburg to Washington D.C. was a whopping 18 hours, with a midway stop in Senegal for refueling. As a first time visitor to Africa, I was struck by how long it took us to arrive in Dakar, Senegal, as well as by how different the West African passengers looked and dressed from locals in Southern and East Africa. Though I’m embarrassed to admit that I was surprised by the differences in cultures, I think it’s important to mention since I suspect I’m not the only one.
“West Africa has a completely different culture than us,” Makau said. “We have a totally different environment and culture, and West Africans don’t come to Kenya for vacation. Actually, most of the clients who would have flown from West Africa to East Africa were doing so because of connections. Kenya Airways is one of the leading airlines in Africa so they would use Kenya as a transit point, never even leaving the airport, to connect to Asia.”
During my week in Kenya on an Abercrombie & Kent fam trip, I was not surprised to learn that my travel agent companions were not among those confused about the Ebola threat. Carol Conover, a leisure manager at CWT Vacations, almost laughed when I asked if Ebola was a concern when signing up for the fam trip. She had booked the trip only a few months in advance, right in the violent throes of Ebola hysteria.
“In Kenya, we’re miles apart from West Africa,” Conover said. “It is like when HIV started — people panic.”
Both Conover and Susan Talbot, a travel agent at AAA Manhattan Beach, admitted that Africa bookings at their agencies are currently nonexistent or on hold. But, they also agreed that continuing to learn about Africa was important.
Both suspect that there will be plenty of pent-up demand among clients. And with fewer travelers in the continent right now, it is a pretty peaceful time to explore and learn as much as you can about Africa. Expect less safari cars in the parks and conservancies, luxury lodges that can upgrade your accommodations and, perhaps best of all, roomy airplanes with plenty of empty seats.
Of course, this situation isn’t rosy for all involved. Safari countries such as Kenya depend on tourism, and a blow to this industry is unfair and could be devastating.
If you want to help Africa, do your part as a world traveler. Next time a client calls inquiring about Ebola, smile, bust out your Africa map and show them why it is actually an excellent time to visit Africa.