Airlines threaten to ‘leave’ South Africa over travel restrictions

South Africa’s aviation industry briefed parliament’s portfolio committee on Tourism on Tuesday (27 October), warning of the serious impact that the coronavirus lockdown and travel restrictions has had on the sector.

The Board of Airline Representatives of South Africa (Barsa) – which represents both international and African airlines, airport operators and other stakeholders – said that the country needs a ‘coordinated, sensitive response’ when dealing with the pandemic.

Barsa told the committee that the road to recovery post-Covid-19 will be ‘long, uncertain and tedious’, and that airlines have a critical role to play in the tourism industry’s recovery from the devastation of the pandemic.

The group told the committee that some airlines have reduced their capacity and frequency of flights to South Africa due to the uncertainty around the regulatory environment.

It added that some airlines have even threatened to leave South Africa and use neighbouring countries as their new hubs.

Barsa said that the biggest risk for South Africa is losing its strategic hub status, as the country currently plays the role of the gateway to Africa and Southern African Development Community countries.

It told the committee that cargo flights are not enough to sustain the routes and that the phasing in of red-listed countries for leisure tourists is eagerly awaited, as leisure tourism is an economic enabler in the tourism sector.

The body also called for the relaxing of taxes and tariffs for landing fees, aircraft parking fees and passenger service charges.

The committee also heard that it is more expensive to travel to smaller airports servicing small towns than to big cities. This affects the geographical spread of tourists and makes domestic travel by air unaffordable, it said.

Hopeful of opening by December

22 countries are prohibited from entering South Africa for leisure purposes under the country’s current travel guidelines.

While this is a significant reduction from the 60 countries originally named on ‘high-risk list’, the countries that remain banned include key travel markets such as the US, UK and Germany.

Tourism minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane says that government is now hopeful of opening the country’s borders to all countries before the December holidays.

Kubayi-Ngubane said that opening the country for international tourism would be a major boost to the economy – but stressed that government has to balance this with the potential risk of enabling a second wave of Covid-19 infections.

If infections were to climb once again, the tourism sector would lose a lot of jobs and a lot more businesses would go under, she said.

“We do believe that we have a second chance to try and recover – and anything that can happen (with Covid infections) can literally take us backwards.”

Her comments follow warnings from KwaZulu-Natal premier Sihle Zikalala, who said that a return to a hard lockdown is on the cards for South Africa, unless the country sees a decline in the number of daily coronavirus cases.


Read: Here’s the updated list of high-risk countries that can’t travel to South Africa

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Airlines threaten to ‘leave’ South Africa over travel restrictions