Tourists’ departure leaves Madagascar forlorn as coronavirus fears bite

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On a pristine island off the northwest coast of Madagascar famous for its orchids and turquoise, turtle-filled waters, residents are bracing for disaster – but it’s not the coronavirus.

It’s the disappearance of tourists that keep the island’s economy afloat. Madagascar is already one of the world’s poorest nations; most people survive on less than $2 per day.

The island, Nosy Sakatia, is dependent on the steady flow of Europeans visiting each year. This Friday, the last tourists are going home on the last commercial flights between Madagascar and Europe. The government announced it would be suspending all flights for 30 days on Tuesday.

Marie Tato owns a beach-front restaurant, Chez Marie, that employs seven people and serves 80 tourists on a good day.

But the global coronavirus outbreak – which has not yet hit the East African island nation of Madagascar – has frozen international travel, emptying the country of its tourists and forcing business owners like Tato to weigh whether they can save their business by firing employees.

“If I fire them, they will have nothing to eat,” Tato told Reuters. “I try to scramble right and left to pay the employees but if there are no customers, there is no activity.”

Tato’s three children, who also work in tourism, have already lost their jobs.

One of Tato’s employees, 67-year old Maman’i Tombo, said that if she loses her job at the restaurant, she will have to break stones by hand for the construction industry, one of the few ways to earn money on Nosy Sakatia outside hospitality.

Other employees said they will grow vegetables, especially as prices for basic necessities have already started to climb on the island.

The roughly 300,000 tourists that visit Madagascar each year generate employment for 641,000 Malagasies out of population of 26 million, according to data from the Economic Development Board of Madagascar.

Madagascar’s crumbling health care system is already in tatters. It struggled to cope with an outbreak of measles last year, and it is one of the few countries that still reports cases of the plague nearly every year, according to the World Health Organization.

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