KILIMANJARO, Tanzania

Hordes of tourists are flocking to Tanzania as fears over the coronavirus pandemic are rapidly fading, raising hopes for the country’s hardest-hit tourism sector, which is emerging from the ravages of the deadly pathogen.

Despite a perceived lack of transparency over the extent of COVID-19 infections in Tanzania, foreign tourists have not been deterred from visiting the country and catching a glimpse of its breath-taking attractions.

The East African country reported 509 COVID-19 cases and 21 deaths in late April, when authorities stopped publishing the pandemic’s tally after they questioned the effectiveness of Chinese-made COVID-19 testing kits, which they suspected were defective, drawing a barrage of criticism from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

The authorities claimed that the kits had returned positive results on samples secretly taken from a goat, pawpaw fruit and wild bird, allegations which the WHO rebutted.

Despite the controversy, which almost certainly kept visitors at bay, the country has managed to restore tourists’ confidence, as no visible signs of new coronavirus infections have been reported lately.

Declaring victory against the deadly pandemic in June, President John Magufuli assured visitors that the country is safe from the coronavirus, adding social and economic activities including tourism must continue.

As the pathogen is still taking its deadly toll in other parts of the world, the situation is different in Tanzania, where residents go about their business as usual and virtually nobody wears a mask.

“I feel much safer. Why should I waste my money to buy a Barakoa [face mask]? There is no coronavirus in our country,” said Amina Kidau, a vegetable vendor in the capital, Dar es Salaam.

Tourism is one of the cornerstones of Tanzania’s economy, contributing about 17.2% to the country’s gross domestic product and 25% of all foreign exchange revenues. The sector, which provides direct employment for more than 600,000 people, generated approximately $2.4 billion in 2018, government statistics show.

As one of Africa’s favorite tourist destinations, Tanzania is known for its breathtaking attractions, including stunning landscapes dotted with wildlife and a rich cultural heritage.

But due to the outbreak of the coronavirus in mid-March this year, the country’s tourism sector has incurred huge losses due to travel restrictions imposed by governments worldwide to quell the menacing virus.

Hamisi Kigwangalla, the minister of tourism and natural resources, told parliament in June that the number of tourists who visited the country had sharply declined by 76% from 1.9 million last year to approximately 437,000.

Despite the gloomy atmosphere, the sector is rebounding, as the onset of the peak tourism season has ushered in a new era as major international airlines resume flights to the country’s northern tourism circuit, offering a ray of hope for the industry.

International airlines including KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, Swiss Air and Emirates, which halted flights in mid-March, are now flying to and from Tanzania.

At Kilimanjaro International Airport, nestled at the foot of snow-capped Mount Kilimanjaro, a group of Maasai warriors in dazzling outfits sang and leapt in the air as a KLM plane carrying 177 tourists slowly taxied under plumes of sprinkled water as it received a traditional salute to grace its maiden arrival.

“We have won the confidence of tourists, and the world knows that we have all necessary public health measures in place to ensure the safety of our visitors,” said Kilimanjaro regional commissioner Anna Mghwira.

Even though Africa is expected to cross the threshold of one million reported coronavirus cases, Tanzania has not recorded a single case since late April. The president, who has sneered at social distancing and mask-wearing, said the power of prayers has helped quell the virus in the country.

In its recent travel advisory, Tanzania’s Health Ministry allayed fears over COVID-19 infections, saying it has instituted strict measures including a requirement for on-board passengers to submit proof that they have tested negative for the virus within 72 hours.

Although there is no mandatory quarantine period in place, temperature checks, mask wearing and social distancing are in effect.

“All international travelers should observe adherence to prevention measures such as hand-washing, wearing masks and keeping physical distancing,” read the statement.

Thomas Mihayo, chairman of the Tanzania Tourist Board, a government agency tasked with overseeing the tourism sector, said he is upbeat about the sector’s recovery, adding the government has adopted strategies to make the industry more sustainable in the future.

“We recognize that tourism is an important pillar of our economy. We will do everything to revive its old glory,” he said.

Selous National Park, which attracted more than 60,000 tourists last year, has seen an increasing number of visitors since June, raising hope for a full recovery.

Iver Jackobsen, who arrived from Sweden recently, visited Selous, where he saw a killer leopard grabbing her prey with her strong front paws and dragging it as she fast climbed up a tree and vanished in obscurity.

“I have never seen such a moment before. I have documented it to show my children,” he said.

Jackobsen said he is satisfied with the measures the authorities are taking to control the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Ester Meena, a tour guide with the Nkweshoo Cultural Tourism Program on the green slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro, was until March hosting hundreds of tourists before the coronavirus brought most of the excursion tours to a sudden halt, affecting her income.

“It felt like mourning the loss of our livelihoods, but thank God the business is slowly returning,” said Meena, who guides tourists through cultural and historical attractions.

As the tourism peak season unfolds, she is filled with optimism.

“I strongly believe the industry will bounce back, but it will take some time.”

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