At Lengwe National Park in Chikwawa, game ranger Shaibu Kadewere nostalgically recalls truckloads of tourists coming to see a diversity of animals before the coronavirus pandemic.
The park used to host hundreds of tourists every day before the closure of borders and sky routes to contain the spread of the virus discovered in China last December, he says.
Now the tourists from within Malawi and abroad rarely come to marvel at buffalos, bushbucks, warthogs, impalas and other stunning animals in the park.
The astonishing conservation area near the cane fields of Nchalo looks deserted.
“I usually manage the gate and we used to receive visitors every day, not just during weekends,” says the parks and wildlife assistant.
Not any longer.
Since April when coronavirus was first detected in Malawi, most tourists have stopped travelling due to stay-at-home measures to reduce coronavirus spread.
The virus had already grounded flights and slammed borders shut in the US and Europe, the main source of tourists, when it arrived in Malawi.
Kadewere says: “Nowadays, a week passes without receiving any visitor. Covid-19 has taken almost 90 percent of our business because travellers are afraid of catching the virus.”
Even price reductions have come short of luring the tourists. The arrivals are few even though the park management has removed gate fees.
“As long as you are spending a night here, you don’t pay anything at the gate where locals used to pay K1 000 while foreign visitors paid $5 [about K3 750]. However, this has not made the desired difference.”
Everyone entering the park is supposed to follow coronavirus precautions, including wearing face masks, regularly washing hands with soap and social distancing.
The situation at Lengwe replicates itself at the nearby Majete Wildlife Reserve, run by African Parks under the public private partnership.
“Since May, Majete has had no international tourists. The only tourists coming are Malawians and residents,” says park manager John Adendorff.
The monthly revenue generated by the country’s sole home of the Big Five is falling.
According to Adendorff, the wildlife reserve generated just about $25 000 (about K18.7 million) in July, almost half of the $50 000 it recorded in the same month for the previous two years.
Majete Wildlife Reserve field and operations manager Gervaz Thamala says most Malawian tourists are day-timers who only pay gate and game viewing fees.
Some use personal vehicles to tour the park instead of paying game-viewing fees.
“With Covid-19, we are depending on local tourism. Although 80 percent of visitors at Majete are Malawians, they don’t spend the night here,” he says.
Thamala encourages Malawians to visit and lodge at Majete and other tourist attractions at risk of collapsing.
Domestic tourism maybe?
Minister of Tourism, Wildlife and Culture Michael Usi says the global coronavirus outbreak has exposed that most Malawians leave tourism to international visitors or expatriates.
He states: “The pandemic has been very catastrophic to the tourism industry and the gloomy picture is out there for all to see.
However, it has also shown us where we have been getting this wrong all along. It appears that Malawians don’t like appreciating the beautiful sights they have.”
Usi says currently government is looking at measures to promote domestic tourism and welcome back international tourists when travel restrictions are lifted globally.
“We have a lot of work to do while the pandemic is still on rampage. Robust marketing strategies will be put in place for Malawians to know what we have so that they can visit and spend nights at tourist attraction places such as Lengwe and Majete,” he says.
On July 24, the Malawi Tourism Council (MTC) wrote Usi to seek government’s help to bailout the industry, which has lost over 60 percent of its business.
The letter shows the rising number of coronavirus cases in Malawi, South Africa, Kenya, Europe and United States spells more doom for the sector.
“This cocktail means that we expect the crisis in our tourism sector to continue until a vaccine against Covid-19 is on the market,” said MTC chairperson Tim van der Linden.
MTC projects that the tourism sector will keep grappling until “a big part of 2021”.