NAIROBI (Reuters) - From the jungle-clad slopes of the Great Lakes to the game parks of South Africa, tourism is beginning to recover as the Ebola outbreak in a corner of the continent ebbs and foreigners overcome their fear of the virus.
The epidemic has been confined overwhelmingly to Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, where at least 8,700 people have died. But it has resonated all across the continent in the form of canceled flights, missed meetings and empty hotel rooms, even though Africa’s main tourist centers are further from the Ebola zone than Paris.
Inquiries at Safaribookings.com, a marketplace for more than 1,200 safari companies in east and southern Africa, were down 25 percent during the last four months of 2014, but bounced back in January, with a 20 percent rise compared to a year ago.
“It’s really increased incredibly over the last three weeks,” said Jan Beekwilder, the company’s co-owner. “The surplus is really due to the ending of the crisis.”
Several individual lodge operators, in despair when Reuters contacted them in October, also said business improved since experts started talking about the beginning of the end of the epidemic.
A scaling back of the wall-to-wall media coverage of the handful of Ebola cases that occurred in Europe and the United States - where most tourists to Africa come from - has helped.
“Things are better,” Hotels Association of Tanzania head Lathifa Sykes said, while echoing the frustrations of many Africans who say Westerners often forget that Africa is three times the size of the United States and made up of 54 countries.
Beyond the three countries at the epicenter, Ebola reached only three others, all in West Africa. Eight people died in Nigeria, six in Mali and none in Senegal, where just one case was diagnosed. The outbreak has been declared over in all three.
“The world needs to understand that Africa is not a country. God forbid anything else should happen – Ebola coming back or anything else – but we need to educate our tourists,” she said.
In the three worst-hit countries - none of them destinations for all but the hardiest back-packer or bush-whacker - the situation remains bleak, with flight restrictions still in place and foreign firms refusing to let expatriate workers back.
But elsewhere in the immediate neighborhood, business and leisure travelers are returning, if slowly.
Several managers of beach hotels along Ghana’s coast reported a gradual recovery in bookings after a drop of at least 20 percent last year, but they feared it would take time before the stigma caused by the publicity surrounding Ebola disappears.
“The media have terrified people about coming to West Africa and it’s been so detrimental,” said Wendy Pongo, founder of Big Milly’s Backyard, a beach hotel outside the Ghanaian capital Accra famous for its Saturday night reggae.
The concerted international response to the epidemic, now more than 12 months old, has also reassured potential visitors who once worried that the Ebola fight was being left solely to a handful of NGOs and three deeply impoverished governments.
The United States deployed more than 2,000 marines to Liberia from September to help build treatment units, while Britain sent 800 troops to Sierra Leone, a former colony.
After criticism of its ponderous initial response to the outbreak, the World Health Organization (WHO) also boosted its support of governments and aid agencies, deploying hundreds of officials for ‘contact tracing’ of possible victims.
“There is comfort in knowing that there are a lot of international hands on the ground and it’s not just governments with few resources tackling it themselves,” said Dianna Games of the South Africa-Nigeria Chamber of Commerce.
In South Africa, where tourism accounts for nearly 10 percent of GDP, industry officials cited Ebola as one of the reasons for a slightly below-forecast Christmas season but said its potential eradication augured well for 2015.
Elsewhere, hoteliers in remote locations said travelers prepared to deal with discomforts ranging from malaria to political instability were always bound eventually to arrive at a more sober-sided assessment of the risks of Ebola.
“If you look at my bookings diary for November and December, it’s just full of crossings out where we’ve had cancellations,” said Aubrey Price, owner of the luxury Ndali Lodge in western Uganda’s Ruwenzori Mountains.
“But the cancellations are now drying up and the bookings are coming in so I‘m actually pretty optimistic about 2015. It seems people have got used to the threat of Ebola and they just want to come and see gorillas.”
Additional reporting by Matthew Mpoke Bigg in Accra and Ed Cropley in Johannesburg; Writing by Ed Cropley; editing by Philippa Fletcher