3 April 2014

Malawi: Tour Guides At Higher Risk of HIV Infection

Guides working in Malawi's top tourist destinations face an increased risk of HIV infection, according to a spokesman from the Cape Maclear Tour Guides Association.

The Malawi Government wants to boost tourism to stimulate economic growth and tour guides are a vital workforce in the sector. They act as bridges between tourists and service providers in resorts and protected areas-such as Cape Maclear, on the shores of Lake Malawi.

Hastings Daniel Mackford, chairperson of Cape Maclear Tour Guide Association, said he has turned down unsafe sexual advances from foreign women on various occasions.

"In one incident, a foreign woman invited me for a drink and, while we were drinking, she started seducing me. I had to leave before things got out of hand. There are unprotected sexual relationships taking place between tour guides and tourists," he said.

Using money as bait

Mackford, who is married with one child, said some female visitors use money as bait to win the hearts of young Malawian men from the communities close to the tourists attraction centre.

"These relationships are putting people at risk of contracting HIV," he said. "I have heard of some older foreign women engaging in sexual relationships with young men - especially teenagers and men under 30."

According to Mackford, the chances of condoms being used are minimal. There are high levels of ignorance in communities surrounding Cape Maclear, including a belief that white people cannot contract HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

"Most people think that AIDS is for black and poor people, perhaps because they have never seen whites living with the disease. We have several community based organisations in our area engaged in HIV prevention programmes, but they need to do more in order to win this battle," explained Mackford.

Careful about sex

However Lackson Maliwanda, vice chairperson of Cape Maclear Tour Guides Association, dismissed the belief commonly held in local communities that many female tourists are seeking sex with black men. He estimates that on average one female tourist out of ten would engage in sexual union with a tour guide.

"Most of the white women that get into relationships with a tour guide do it outside the profession and usually such attachments end in something serious," said Maliwanda.

He believes that in instances where there is a sexual relationship between a tourist and a guide, the tourist would always demand a condom.

"White women are always careful in their sex life. They will always demand a condom if situations happen that turn into a sexual relationship with the guides," he said.

Absence of HIV Information

However, Maliwanda bemoaned the absence of HIV and AIDS information among the tour guide industry, saying they usually get the information from unconventional sources.

"We, as a profession, are very vulnerable to HIV infection yet we are not reached with HIV and AIDS information," said Maliwanda.

He believes the people who run local HIV and AIDS programmes are denying tour guides information, because they are seen as social outcasts.

"People think we inject drugs but our profession is just like any other - only that it places us in the middle of world cultures," he said.

Tourism as an HIV risk

John Banana Matewere, also a member of Cape Maclear Tour Guide Association, said there was a need to put tour guides in the national HIV and AIDS strategy because of the risk of contracting HIV from tourists. The Association has a membership of 56, all of whom are men.

A study* by Thomas Bisika, who is now executive director of the National AIDS Commission, highlights the need for authorities to lay down strategies to prevent HIV infections in the tourism sector.

The study says: "Malawi has a great potential for tourism development. It must, however, be acknowledged that tourism has already been associated with the spread of HIV. One explanation is that tourist facilities like hotels which often have bars, disco and other entertainment facilities are generally regarded as a business rendezvous for sex workers."

The study also says people tend to consume alcohol and use drugs in tourist facilities and that behaviours associated with this are factors in the spread of HIV. This is because drugs (including alcohol) can disrupt the parts of the brain people use to weigh risks and benefits when making decisions.

*'Sexual, and reproductive health and HIV/AIDS risk perception in the Malawi tourism industry' published by the Malawi Medical Journal (2009 June; 21(2): 75-80)

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