Soon after arriving at an eerily empty OR Tambo airport in Johannesburg, I was having a conversation with a hotel staff member in the lift. Asking how things were going, he quickly said that day was the first he had worked in a month. He thought he would be going to a week on and a week off before long, the most work he’d had since February 2020. From feeling very disconnected from the safari world, my friends and colleagues; all of a sudden the reality of what Covid has done to the people who work in tourism was right there in front of me.
Covid, the Safari Industry and the Humans Concerned
Out on safari, as we moved from place to place across Zimbabwe, the personal stories were the same. Camps are running on skeleton staff, sometimes with as little as half the staff they had before. Only the most experienced and multi-skilled room attendants, waiters, mechanics, managers, chefs and guides staying on. All of them were only just coming back after a non-existent 2020 season, and most of them were working on as little as half wages. This is what happens when the taps are turned off overnight. And these are staff working for companies who did and are doing their level best to look after their people, many were not so lucky.
In the safari world context, it’s crucial to remember at this point that behind every one of these jobs is an entire family. Food, healthcare, rent, school fees, small businesses. The person who pulls down your mosquito net and makes sure your phone charger doesn’t disappear under the bed, can quite commonly be supporting six or more family and friends. There are all sorts of figures around for the financial impact of the pandemic on the travel industry in Africa, drastic cuts in GDP, in foreign exchange earnings, tax revenues and employment rates. These only take on real meaning when juxtaposed with the friend who had to take his daughter out of school because no one was coming on safari anymore.
Returning to Tanzania
Turning up in familiar offices, hotels and camps back in Tanzania, something was off. Apart from the time elapsed since the last visit, it was the missing faces. “Where’s so and so.” “Oh well maybe they’ll be back soon…” Those are the folks directly employed in the industry, plenty of others have also been affected. Taking guests through various curio stalls and markets, after the initial selling frenzy, their stories were all the same, going weeks at a time without seeing any customers. Folks at the not tourist Maasai market shared our concern for those working in tourism, but as life for them continued relatively unscathed, they found the whole thing very curious. “When will they come back?” Good question I’d say.
What have we Learnt?
From the overgrown and disappeared roads in Ruaha National Park to the miles of ungraded roads in the Serengeti. The effects of the pandemic are everywhere to see. They are not only personal, they are being felt in the conservation and ecology of those great wild places. Guests are returning, slowly, to the big ticket destinations. Making a visit to the peripheral and lesser known safari camps even more valuable than ever. If we can learn anything from this pandemic, it should be to be ever more mindful of the humans who are our safari community.