There’s only one real news item in West Africa right now, and that’s the impact of the Ebola outbreak. It is a human tragedy, with Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, fragile post-conflict states before this, now crippled, and with any improvement in their international reputations destroyed. The stigma will remain for some time.
Here in Nigeria, the authorities seem to have tackled the threat really well, with “only” 8 deaths, and no new cases reported for some weeks. Several countries, including Cameroon, Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire have no reported cases.
Whilst the human tragedy is the one to occupy our emotions, there is also a significant impact on our business lives. I wrote last month about the increased hassle in travelling in the region, hassle that has, it seems, successfully halted the spread of Ebola in Nigeria and elsewhere, and is therefore necessary. Even in our daily lives it is impacting, with temperatures checked on entry to my daughter’s school, as well as at bars and some offices.
The problem is that travel, both international and domestic, has been severely affected – international travellers do not want to travel to a region where they might contract the disease, nor do domestic travellers want to be on aeroplanes, confined spaces where they might come into contact with an infected person. Gatherings of people, such as conferences and social events, are being cancelled.
But the loss of business at hotels, restaurants, events centres and the like is contributing to the human tragedy. Empty hotels in Freetown and Monrovia cannot pay their staff, who therefore suffer deprivation. The whole value chain suffers, not just directly in the hotels that are laying off staff, but including the loss of revenue at the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker that supply those hotels, and the staff that work in those allied businesses.
Here in Lagos, the hotels are running at very low occupancies, some below 30 per cent, although their restaurant and bar business seems to be OK. Ebola is only transmitted through contact with bodily fluids, and not through the air, so these places are seen to be “safe”, unlike close contact weddings and other social events.
In Accra too, the hotels are suffering, despite the fact that the country is free from Ebola – the government there announced that they were not hosting any further conferences this year, and the lack of confidence that engendered meant that several events were cancelled, and the hotel industry relies heavily on MICE business.
The Cameroon-Nigeria border is closed completely, and flights between the two countries are not operating. Partial closure of the border is nothing new, dating back several months due to terrorist attacks, but complete closure has meant the stoppage of all trade between the two countries, and the cessation of air services means no travel at all. Again, the knock on effect on the local economies is huge. The Government of Cameroon, who initiated the closure, are giving no information regarding when the border will be reopened, and when flights can resume.
These are difficult times, and whilst we grieve for our cousins in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, we are grateful that the authorities in Nigeria and elsewhere have been able to contain the situation – God knows what would have happened had Ebola taken hold in the markets in Alaba, Onitsha or Aba, with shops densely packed together, and thousands of traders visiting daily.
Recovery from the crisis will be all about confidence. The medical authorities will, we pray, announce the end of the outbreak, at some time. But travel, and therefore the hospitality business, is not going to be back where it was until travellers are confident it is safe. We were already seeing signs of nervousness in the first half of the year, when the US issued travel warnings due to terrorist threats. I think “hardened” travellers are less affected by bomb threats and the like, but Ebola? That’s upfront and personal, however careful we might be about where to go and what to do, we could catch it.
Inviting people to travel again after a terrorist attack, once the authorities have given the all-clear, that’s OK. Inviting people back after Ebola will require our guests, and their families, to be absolutely sure they are safe, and that’s a hard call.
Responsible feedback to our guests, based on real evidence, will help to restore their confidence. It is not going to be quick, and here in Nigeria we have the added issue of the forthcoming elections in February 2015 – many might say that they will wait and see what happens then before returning to the country. One hotel general manager told me that October is looking more positive, in terms of bookings, than it has done for a few months – we hope this is the first sign of our recovery.
W Hospitality Group, Lagos