The new rules of safari holidays: why we must consider community health before choosing where to stay

Heather Richardson
Lion

Over the past two months, there’s been ample conversation about the resumption of tourism: what it means for the traveller, how properties can entice guests, how heavily local and national economies and conservation rely on tourism. But there has been scant mention of what travelling during a pandemic means for the health of people living in and around tourism destinations.

Within the safari industry, this topic has been notably absent – which is particularly concerning given that safaris take place in rural areas, far from hospitals. Although South Africa, which serves as a transit hub for much of Southern Africa, will likely not open to international tourism until 2021, Tanzania – where few measures have been taken to control Covid-19 – has already opened its airspace, with no quarantine required for international tourists.

There’s no doubt that tourism is desperately needed in safari destinations – for income and to ensure the continuation of conservation efforts. But it’s vital that community health be considered in tandem.

A couple of weeks ago, I watched a webinar for members of the industry with four camp owners on the panel. For an hour and a half, the conversation covered the reopening of the industry. Though there was plenty of talk about how safaris are perfect for social distancing as far as guests are concerned, there was no mention of staff welfare (I even posted the question at the start).

It’s no secret the safari industry is deeply flawed. Though the industry talks a big game about job creation, communities around safari destinations – many of which have been forced off land that became national parks and reserves – do not benefit half as much as they should from safaris: most camps and lodges are white-owned; in South Africa, the prevalence of the white guide, black tracker team (guides are paid and tipped more than trackers) is straight-up racist. In addition to addressing all the inequalities in the industry, a commitment to the safety of employees is the bare minimum safari owners should be offering at this time.

Giraffe, Safari

“Health is life,” says guide Oetile John from Botswana’s Okavango Delta, one of the continent’s most popular safari destinations and where the majority of people are employed in tourism. Botswana has had 40 confirmed Covid-19 cases and one death, and has recently started lifting a lockdown that began in late March.

“The drying up of tourism has put the life of communities into an unexplainable situation,” John continues. “We need now to understand how bad our invisible enemy is and how we can approach him to revive the tourism sector. If health protocols are applied correctly, I’m convinced the Okavango can be corona-free.”

So, how can we, as travellers, make sure future safaris are responsible from a health perspective?

First of all, do your research. Is there a risk you could bring Covid-19 to a rural community in a country that is not testing people and/or has a shaky health system? That is a serious consideration and one that will be relevant to every country that opens its borders over the coming months (worldwide, not just across Africa).

Secondly, ask the camp or lodge what their protocols are for both guests and staff. For example, are they ensuring employees have access to PPE? Are staff staying on site to prevent the spread of the virus in their communities? Are tests being provided so employees can go home knowing they are virus-free? Is healthcare covered?

Deo Magoye, owner of Njozi Camp in the Serengeti, confirms his staff will be provided with masks, sanitiser and gloves. In addition to PPE and various protocols to keep everyone safe at their East African camps, Asilia Africa provides healthcare for all employees (and, in most cases, their families, too). This kind of information should be made easily accessible by properties, so tourists can make informed choices. Post-lockdowns, we should be favouring the camps, lodges and hotels that have put health before profits.

Do you plan to take a safari holiday when lockdown lifts? Will you research local community health and the systems in place before booking?