On 31st December 2019 like any end year the world erupted in fireworks as we saw off 2019 to usher in a new year and quite special one for that matter with identical numbers of 2020. The last time such a year was observed was over a century ago as the world marked a year after the end of the First World War in 1919. Globally we were all very positive and we looked forward to a great year both in business and travel trade so was Kenya and East Africa.
That same day as families gathered around to see off 2019, in far flung China in Wuhan capital city of Hubei province something strange was going on which ordinarily would not have been considered anything unusual. The Chinese authorities had made a report to W.H.O offices in China of a new type of coronavirus which was finally isolated on 7 January 2020. We finally came to know it as Covid19 which is Corona Virus December 2019. China has had its fair share of virus outbreaks thanks to all the wet markets but they have always managed to keep it under control but this time round it was not going to be the case.
We saw off 2019 to usher in a new year quite special one for that matter with identical numbers of 2020.
Little did we know that in less than 100 days our lives would completely change from Antigua to Zimbabwe, from Fiji to Alaska from the North Pole to the South Pole entire globe way of life would be disrupted . The virus moved swiftly faster than a savanna wild bush fire across. Thanks to ease of air travel it spread so fast that the world was left shell shocked. It reached Europe where Italy and Spain bore the brunt of deaths followed by UK and USA. The virus checked in into each and every country and the few who claimed to be virus free was mainly due to lack of testing as opposed to real absence of the virus. Within few weeks virus had landed on each and every continent. It was now official Covid19 was on even terrorists took a break.
The impact of the deadly virus was fast and furious , first to suffer was travel where unimaginable events started to happen with nations closing their airspace and airline announcing flights cancellations as nations started to evacuate their citizens from all corners of the world to go back home. Hotels suddenly emptied and as holiday makers cut short their stays while forward bookings were left in abeyance.
The virus checked in into each and every country. The few who claimed to be virus free was mainly due to lack of testing as opposed to real absence of the virus.
As I write this piece close to four months after the official announcement of Covid19 at a wet market in Wuhan the global disruption to trade not to mention tourism has been staggering. All passenger airlines are grounded and suddenly aircraft parking space became a challenge and in some cases some aircrafts took up parking slots meant for cars. On the other hand 90% of hotels and resorts around the world closed shop a scenario never ever seen before let alone ever imagined. The world is still shell shocked as we try to come to terms with new terminologies like social distancing, isolation, contact tracing, quarantine and wearing of masks which is now considered the new normal and now part of our wardrobe until further notice.
Within few weeks virus had landed on each and every continent. It was now official Covid19 was on even terrorists took a break.
While medics around the world continue to battle the virus and scientists race against time to develop a vaccine how will Post Covid-19 travel look like?
Trust me it will be one tedious journey. It will be time consuming and a lot of things we took for granted will have to change. Any tourism player who thinks that we will simply go back to our usual normal world of pre Dec 31st 2019 is grossly mistaken. It will be a whole new world that is now referred to as New Normal. Travel and tourism will turn out to be expensive in the beginning more so before a vaccine or treatment is found. Travel will only be for the brave and those with deep pockets.
How will the new world of tourism look like?
While historically yellow fever certificate made us pull hair, just imagine a Covid-19 free certificate. While you may have the certificate you may be tested before you board and once you arrive at your destination you are again tested at the airport before you are allowed final entry. Imagine a family of 4 where one of them turns positive? Very few people would have the mental strength to deal with such uncertainties in the short to mid-term especially after the isolation, job losses and other mental strains they have undergone. The world will be faced with a terrified populace.
International travel would take longer and people will opt for shorter trips within their own countries which are simpler to avoid Covid-19 tests and can be booked in advance or last minute. This is real and presents a danger that we need to be weary of as East Africans. Our source market of UK, Europe like Italy and Spain, USA have all borne the brunt of the virus. It will take them a long time before they gain the confidence of flying out to another country let alone another continent.
While a vaccine may help to reduce the post Covid-19 troubles but treatment is the ultimate solution. In the absence of a treatment which has to be both affordable and available it means borders will be opened and closed in a flash. The paranoia of governments and border patrols will outweigh the needs of a few to have a vacation. Several countries are already taking bills to their parliament to bar their nationals from flying abroad for remaining part of 2020. They are adopting a wait and see attitude. Therefore we could be seeing opening and closing of countries, airports and borders for a period of time. With concerns of second and third waves of the virus governments will not be too eager and quick to open their countries and welcome foreign travellers in.
Airlines bring in tourists and with depressed air travel tourism will struggle to bounce back. Air travel cost is dictated by volumes and for a while air travel will go back to the sixties and seventies mode where air travel was for the elite and only a small segment will afford to take to the skies.
A vaccine may help to reduce the post Covid-19 troubles but treatment is the ultimate solution.
East Africa as a destination, I am afraid only a vaccine and treatment will allow long haul charters to resume more so for the beach destination of Zanzibar and Mombasa ( Kenya Coast ). Charters are mass market and where every seat not sold means lost margin for the charter operator. If airlines are to operate at 50% capacity it will prove to be very expensive and that will be one nail into the coffin of charter business. The same shall apply even on local flights, last minute hops will no longer be affordable with aircrafts flying at half capacity as much as you are all masked. Filling the aircraft with 6 to 9 adults in one row will disappear for some time as airlines are forced to implement social distancing in the air. It will mean higher prices for tickets and this will carve a niche for those with disposable income and likely to be the upper and upper middle class which is a relative proportion of the travellers that visit East Africa.
In the international market the era of jumping into an aircraft and heading off in less than seven days will be gone. Couples, families and other travellers will think numerous times prior to booking the trip due to the uncertainty prevailing across the world.
Many of our potential clients will have been furloughed and others will have been made redundant. Holidays will be the last thing on their mind. Financial woes will be priority and governments will reduce the support measures, meaning everyone have to support themselves. With economies depressed, it will take time for those without work to secure income and consider travel. We will emerge with complete uncertainty and unknown as to what the future will hold. What was the norm will no longer be the norm with people thinking about holidays. Priority will be welfare, source of income and many will still be dealing with the loss of loved ones they never even managed to see on their death beds as they battled the virus let alone lay them to rest.
In this Covid19 crisis the world discovered that virtual meeting indeed works. In new normal don’t be surprised to see conference and meetings becoming a reserve for local players while international delegates will join via the myriad video conferencing channels. It means hotels and resort as venues must invest in state of the art video conferencing equipment backed by strong reliable bandwidth to stream the conference without the frequent annoying buffering.
Fancy Buffets & Mass Dinning Will have to take a time out
Hotel dining will have to change in the short term where social distancing will have to be practiced. It means buffet and mass food display will be gone for a while to avoid the risk of infection where a serving spoon is handled by many diners at a hotel buffet set up. In the short term expect pre-plated food taking place of buffets and in room dining becoming more popular with breakfast and dinner. This will mean higher labour cost for hotels while a substantial investment will also be required in hardware not to mention the staff training to handle quality reliable in room dining. The resorts and hotels that continue with buffet set ups means level of hygiene will be upped to give confidence to any diner that chance of infection is not only reduced but next to zero.
For those who dare book a safari be prepared for masked guests and driver guides. At every lodge where they check in they better be prepared for thermometer temperature checks and constant sanitization where nothing is left to chance. In reality going on safari will be one of the most therapeutic treatments after all the stressful lengthy lockdowns. Due to the pain of arranging for travel don’t be surprised to get lengthy stays hence the correct pricing and attractive pricing will also play out. Africa lodges and camps can easily replace the cruise ship holidays that will be considered to carry a higher risk due to the nature of enclosed shared services, that will only happen if we reinvent ourselves.
Ease of booking and cancelation policy will dictate future travel and immediate recovery. Travellers will only take the risk of travel when they are pretty sure that they can cancel with no penalties and if there is penalty then it is reasonable amount as opposed to complete loss of their funds like what used to happen in the pre-covid19 good times. The destination that choose to be flexible are the ones the ones that will bounce back. Rigid destination will take a very long time to recover and if they are not careful will be slowly writing their obituary.
In reality going on safari will be one of the most therapeutic treatments after all the stressful lengthy lockdowns. African lodges and camps can easily replace the cruise ship holidays that will be considered to carry a higher risk due to the nature of enclosed shared services.
The next 18 months will not be easy. Survival will be crucial in the short to mid-term 6 to 12 months. It is said “ it is NOT what happened to you that matters it is how you respond to it that matters most”. We shall overcome, but how long it will take and what we will need to do to survive is the million dollar question.
Domestic tourism will start to come back first, followed by regional travel hence Africa must make it easy for our people to travel within the continent. Europe has done well because of the open borders and free visa between the 23 Schengen states same goes for the GCC member states. Africa is still closed and it is even easier for an international visitor to enter Africa as opposed to a fellow African. Open borders must also be supported by a working and efficient aviation sector.
African countries have never been great in running airlines save for Ethiopian airlines. I hope and pray that South African Airways SAA gets out of ICU while my very own Kenya Airways KQ also finds its way out of High Dependency unit (HDU) so to speak. With the likes of RwandAir, Tanzania Airways and Uganda Airways all taking to the skies we pray and hope they stay healthy in the air to make the intra Africa travel a reality. Aviation is expensive business which requires serious financial discipline and good governance which sadly is alien to Africa hence African countries must consider merging their airlines to create a few well run airlines in the new normal post-covid19 .
While hotel investors have management agreement with known leading hotel chains it is high time African countries tapped into the expertise and staying power of Ethiopia Airlines who are the undisputed kings of African skies. They fly shoulder to shoulder with well-established global brands. Ethiopian Airlines (74) is tried and tested and it is the oldest airline in Africa even older than British Airways (46) and Lufthansa (67), Singapore (48) Emirates (35) and Kenya Airways (43).
It is high time African countries tapped into the expertise and staying power of Ethiopia Airlines who are the undisputed kings of African skies.
We should not shy off to tap into skills of Ethiopian airlines by signing lease and management agreements with them. Africa does not have the luxury of time in post –covid19 and it is no time for African countries to pretend that they can run an airline when they could not do it for more than half a century since independence.
Let Ethiopian connect the African continent and we all give them all freedom rights while each country will then focus on domestic flights where Ethiopian will again help each country to set up domestic airlines to sharpen their competitive age. Imagine for once the bulk purchasing power of Africa from an aviation point of view. What is the use of flying to some far flung country only to make a loss and seek frequent state bailouts. To massage our egos that we own an airline is pretty useless when an airline turns out to be a bottom less pit where good money is lost after bad money year in year out.
On the international scene as a destination be it Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda or Rwanda our strategy for recovery needs to be focussed on mid to long term considering the state of the world post Covid-19. We cannot expect a quick recovery and we will compete against hundreds of other destinations 110 + destination as a minimum where many of them receive government funding and support. We therefore need to have a cautious approach as to what we plan for the future in terms of rates, conditions and these will help define our return back to relative volumes. It will be a long road and we must work closely together as partners with give and take in the hope that we return to our strong volumes of the past.
By Mohammed Hersi
Chairman Kenya Tourism Federation