West Africa urges tourists to keep visiting despite Ebola

LONDON - West African tourist chiefs urged travellers on Wednesday not to boycott their region because of the Ebola crisis, insisting that the epidemic was only affecting three countries in a vast continent.

"Africa is not a country, Africa is a continent," said Ola Wright, the chief executive of West Africa Tourism, warning that fear over Ebola in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone was having a damaging impact on neighbouring countries.

The deadly virus has brought an abrupt and indefinite halt to international tourism in those three affected countries, where almost 5,000 people have died in the outbreak.

But tourism has been affected across the region and even in east and southern Africa, which are thousands of miles (kilometres) away and have not reported Ebola cases.

"We've had a lot of complaints from different people, from hoteliers, tour operators, complaining that sales have really gone down and of loads of different cancellations," Wright told AFP at the World Travel Market fair in London.

"The fear is more damaging than the actual problem," she said, adding: "It's just ignorance."

Sierra Leone pulled out of the international travel show exhibition last week, while Guinea and Liberia do not normally attend, but Senegal and Nigeria both had stands.

Houma Dia, director of marketing for Senegal's tourism promotion agency, said that someone had come to her stand and questioned her about whether she was tested for signs of Ebola on her arrival in Britain.

"Can you imagine? I was really shocked. Why did you come to ask me and why did you have this reaction? I think people should stop panicking," she said.

Nigeria and Senegal have been declared Ebola-free after a small number of cases of the virus.

Safari bookings down

Tour operators working in West Africa were also at the London event to launch a new campaign to support people of the region in their response to Ebola.

"Unite4WestAfrica" intends to raise money for charity and also promote a "positive story" of West Africa to help it attract tourists in the future.

Tourism in countries such as Sierra Leone was only really beginning to develop following the ravages of the country's civil war in the 1990s, and it has now been set back again.

"These countries were just establishing themselves," said David Oades, of Overlanding West Africa.

He has cancelled this season's overland trips because of border closures but is hopeful they will resume next year.

The effects of Ebola are being felt even further afield.

More than half of South African travel agents, tour operators, car hire and conferencing businesses say the Ebola outbreak has had a negative impact, according to the latest Tourism Business Index published in October.

A survey by the website safaribookings.com of 500 safari tour operators in September found that 70 per cent reported a drop in bookings because of the outbreak.

"Tour operators reported that many tourists view Africa as a single country when it comes to risk assessment," the website said at the time.

"They don't realise that east and southern Africa, where most safaris are conducted, are just as far from the outbreak area as Europe or South America."