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Fallout from Ebola crisis may threaten tourist destinations

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: August 21, 2014

Ebola virus health warning signs in the city of Monrovia, Liberia Picture: Abbas Dulleh

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Leading travel lawyer Bronwen Courtenay-Stamp, warns that the devastating outbreak of Ebola in West Africa may even have implications for travellers bound for uninfected destinations.

West Africa is experiencing the most devastating outbreak of Ebola in history. Ebola is a highly infectious and mostly fatal disease. More than 1,000 people have died of the virus in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria this year alone.

Destinations for business and for holidays in the region carry varying degrees of risk, and the big question for travellers is – will Ebola affect me and my travel plans?

The disease infects humans through close contact with infected animals which can then spread between humans by direct contact. The incubation period lasts from two days to three weeks and diagnosis is difficult. Those infected can remain infectious for up to seven weeks after they recover.

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The World Health Organisation (WHO) has suggested that the scale of the Ebola outbreak appears to be “vastly underestimated” and has said that “extraordinary measures” are needed to control it.

Whilst WHO suggests that Ebola is unlikely to be contracted simply through air travel, airports must be one of the easiest locations to become infected due to their size and the large number of people passing through them daily.

Airlines flying in and out of affected countries are already taking action. British Airways announced that it was suspending flights to Sierra Leone and Liberia until the end of August. There has been significant pressure on Kenyan Airways to suspend flights but it has continued to fly from Kenya to the Ebola-hit states of West Africa – although the Kenyan government is closing its borders to travellers from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone this week and the airline has promised to adhere to that ban by not flying to those countries.

WHO has said that Kenya itself is at high risk of Ebola, and there is likely to be pressure on airlines flying to and from Kenya to consider their positions. Korean Air has suspended flights to Nairobi. It is important for travellers, whether for business or pleasure, to check for specific advice given by the Foreign Office. Currently the advice for Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea is that travellers should carefully assess their need to travel to these countries. If they do decide to travel they should make sure that they have adequate arrangements in place for “onward travel and exit” as well as “adequate emergency health provision”.

If you are travelling to any of these highly infected countries you should allow yourself extra time to check in and undergo statutory security checks – you may be questioned about your travel itinerary to determine whether you are or might have been at high risk of becoming infected.

If the Foreign Office advises specifically against travelling to these countries, or other countries which are or may be likely to be affected by Ebola, if you start to travel after that advice is given you are unlikely to be covered by your travel insurance if you contract the virus.

Some travel insurers have already said that they will not provide cover for any of the affected areas.

If you travel to a country and, whilst there, the Foreign Office advises that it is unsafe to remain, travel companies will arrange to bring you home early. But if you are an independent traveller you will need to contact the British Embassy urgently. Most travel insurances will cover necessary repatriation if you fall ill on holiday, but it is important to be sure that your intended destination is not one to which the Foreign Office has advised against travel.

Contact with your insurance company should answer your questions. If you are intending to travel to one of the infected affected countries you may find that the outbreak there is classed as a pandemic. This is termed “a foreseeable event” and as such no insurance cover would be available.

Two scenarios of concern are: if more airlines decide to avoid Kenya or other African countries thus disrupting travel plans; and if the virus spreads to a country with an established reputation as a tourist destination.

There are reports that the Ugandan government will stop public transport within the country in order to prevent the spread of Ebola and this is likely to cause a great deal of disruption.

Tour operators have already been forced to cancel tours in West Africa – generally you will find that if you have already booked then you will be offered a full refund or transfer to another trip. The Gambian tourist board has issued a statement reassuring would-be tourists that it is safe to visit despite its close proximity to the affected countries. The leisure industry in countries such as Sierra Leone is in its infancy, so this virus is a real tragedy as it will make it much harder to introduce West Africa as a tourist destination.

Bronwen Courtenay-Stamp, head of the travel, tourism and insurance team at Stones Solicitors, Exeter

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