The Serengeti is unusually quiet. For the first time in a while, the animals are undisturbed in the savannah. Travel restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic have meant that the high season has hit an all-time low. For local tourists that have managed to visit, being able to drive through the park without the traffic jam of jeeps is idyllic. But for the safari guides working across Tanzania’s northern circuit, the impact has been catastrophic.
Since the end of March, Boniphace, a tour guide and driver from Arusha, has had little work. He said he realized that coronavirus could become a significant problem for him on his last safari, where he got the news international flights were being canceled at an unprecedented rate. “The tourists I was with decided to immediately go back home to Switzerland.”
Fast forward to September where business remains slow, and the tourists remain few. A stark contrast, Boniphace says, from a safari guide’s usual summer. He explains, “Normally, we are very busy from the middle of June through to July, August, and September. If it is a short safari, around three to four days, we can go up to five times a month.”
In May, the Minister of Tourism announced that 480,000 jobs could be lost if the pandemic persisted until the end of this year.
But now, many guides are struggling to make ends meet. According to Boniphace, the safari business may not pick up again until next year. Faced with the prospect of no work and no income, guides are no longer on the lookout for wildlife, but for new jobs. In May, the Minister of Tourism announced that 480,000 jobs could be lost if the pandemic persisted until the end of this year. He added that the number of tourists anticipated to visit Tanzania could drop from 1.9 million to 430,000. For safari guides, finding employment is not that simple. With COVID-19 hitting the economy hard, it is a struggle to find work.
For Boniphace, it has meant returning to his former profession as an electrician. And since March, he has been doing small jobs in Arusha, allowing him to provide for his family. But like many, he also sees this time as an opportunity to learn a new skill. “I am now planning to invest in the agricultural sector,” he continues. “I am going to buy land and hopefully a tractor, too. At the moment I am not sure what I will grow, it will depend on where I buy the farmland and what the people need in that area. I know a little about farming because I grew up in the village, but I want to learn more and improve. It is still a challenge to get the capital, but once I do, I will get started.”
Despite Boniphace looking forward to entering a new industry, he believes that for many safari guides, finding other work will not be easy. “A lot of guides are looking for jobs, but to start a farm or a business you need capital. But many of us do not have the funds, as we are not getting income from safaris to help us save. For August I did not have a single booking.”
And this is something that William, another safari guide from Arusha, is currently experiencing. As opposed to driving cars, William is now fixing them–having returned to his former mechanic job. “While business is slow, I am spending some time at the local garage, as I previously worked as a mechanic, so I know how to fix cars. But if no tourists come over the next few months, I have a plan to start farming or I will set up another business. The problem is that all my plans need money. These past four or five months I have stayed without a salary, so all that we saved is gone–we are bankrupt.”
The impact, William says, has been severe. “I feel very bad. I have been a professional guide for a long time and right now, I do not have any other work to do. When the tourists come, I earn enough that my family survives, and I survive. I can pay for food, for the school fees, and everything else. But right now, it is a big challenge.” While William could usually earn up to one million Tanzanian Shillings (tshs) per month during the high season, he has made 250,000 tshs over a three-month period (around $100 USD).
William shares that, while getting enough capital to start a new business is difficult, there is the added complication that many guides don’t have the qualifications needed to start a career in a different industry: “It could be hard for others to get jobs. When you are a safari guide you go to study tourism and wildlife, so you usually don’t have any idea on how to do other jobs.”
Now that it is October, the harvest has come. Castor, who has been working as a safari guide for almost ten years, gathers the maize. Right about now, he should be driving across the Ngorongoro Crater but is instead currently residing in Moshi, where he has a small farm of around four hectares and is currently growing maize, maharage (beans), and sunflowers. Castor explains that 60% of the harvest is for sale, while 40% stays with the family for cooking: “I had one safari in July. The sales from the farm have helped me to pay some money towards my children’s schooling.” The farm work is enjoyable, he says, but his desire is to go back to the Serengeti plains, “I wish the situation were normal so I could return to the wilderness. But I do not think the parks will become busy until July next year.”
Castor shares that, in an effort to bring more international tourists, his safari company is focusing on marketing and advertising. “I believe that soon more tourists will be coming to Tanzania–so we are preparing ourselves for that,” he says with a hopeful smile.