Despite the current conflict in South Sudan, people shouldn’t make the mistake thinking the entire country is a war zone, says Estelle Verdier-Watine, the managing director for the East Africa region at online hotel booking platform Jovago. The company has already partnered with 150 hotels in South Sudan, mainly in the cities of Juba and Wau. How we made it in Africa spoke to Verdier-Watine about Jovago’s operations in South Sudan.
When did Jovago officially launch in South Sudan?
Actually last year, April 2014. That’s when three hotels approached us wanting to be listed on our website. So we listed them and started getting them customers, but South Sudan was not a priority for us. Then this year we started going to South Sudan, meeting with hotel managers and signing them up onto our platform.
So the expansion to South Sudan was not initially planned?
Exactly, but I think there’s a big demand from hotels. They really want to find a way to gain visibility and attract more customers, and on the customer side people seem to struggle to book a room there. The network is really bad. When you try to contact a hotel in South Sudan most of the time the lines will not be working. Our ambition is to make it easier to travel anywhere in Africa, including places like South Sudan, which is an already difficult destination to travel to.
Aside from being approached by hotels, what attracted you to the country?
Two things. One, I think there is big potential for business travel because the country is new and there are many things going for it. If you look at the construction industry and real estate, there are many projects and people coming from all over Africa, and indeed the world, to manage all these projects – so we have business travellers in numbers.
It is also a country that has a lot of potential in tourism. There are seven national parks in South Sudan, including the well-known Bandingilo National Park where you can find a huge migration of animals including antelope. Also the Nile River flows there, so I’m sure when the situation gets a bit more peaceful there will be a growing tourism industry.
How has the current conflict affected your business?
So I think it’s basically the same issues as in Africa in general – people see South Sudan as one place. They don’t see a difference between Juba and all the other cities where fighting is going on. They perceive South Sudan as a whole to be unsafe, while actually only parts are. And it is the same issue we face across Africa because of Boko Haram, because of Al Shabaab.
We really have to talk about a specific destination to show people there are many places where it is safe to travel. It is impacting on tourism and it is impacting our business because of this depiction. In reality people who travel to Juba find it a safe place. We are committed to making sure people don’t have the wrong perception.
How do you sign up hotels in South Sudan?
Firstly we had hotels approaching us and we just answered to their demand to be listed on our website. Then we did a bit of contacting the hotels over the phone, asking if they also wanted to be listed. So we sent one of our agents there and he met hotel managers and explained to them what we do, and what we’re offering. I think the online tourism industry is something new in Africa so we really have to meet people face-to-face and explain the value of our services. We focus specifically on Juba and Wau, the biggest cities with the least risk. We avoid the places where we know the risk is very high.