‘Premature’ travel bans leave South Africa in the lurch

South Africa’s battered and bruised tourism and hospitality sector has suffered yet another blow, as countries in Europe, Asia and the Middle East have imposed travel bans to and from the country, following the emergence of a new Covid variant in the Southern African region.

Scientists in South Africa alerted global organisations to the existence of the new variant – called B.1.1.529 until a Greek name is designated – on Thursday. By midnight, the UK Health Department had announced a travel ban on South Africa and five other countries in the region.

This was followed by announcements from Israel, Japan and the European Union declaring travellers from South Africa as personae non gratae, while ordering their own citizens travelling home from the region into quarantine.

By Friday afternoon, the list of travels bans had grown to include the Netherlands, Germany and Malaysia, with Australia and New Zealand taking a  measured ‘wait and see’ approach.

Tourism minister Lindiwe Sisulu expressed disappointment at being shut off from so many destinations at such short notice.

“The UK, Japan, Israel and the European Union have all moved to place stricter measures against South Africa travelling to their part of the world,” she said. “While this is most disappointing, South Africa will continue working with policymakers to ensure the best possible interventions are put in place.”

Department of International Relations and Cooperation minister Naledi Pandor described the bans as premature and rushed.

“Even the World Health Organisation is yet to advise on the next steps,” she said. “Our immediate concern is the damage that this decision will cause to both the tourism industries and businesses of both countries”.

According to the department, officials will engage the UK government and others with the view to persuade them to reconsider the decision.

The World Health Organisation weighed in on the matter, with Covid-19 technical lead, Dr Maria Van Kerkhove urging authorities not to discriminate against countries that share their findings openly.

The WHO said it will meet on Friday afternoon to discuss the variant.

Hospitality industry in danger

According to the Democratic Alliance, being placed onto international no-fly lists will deliver a significant blow to the local tourism industry, and has called for the setting up of a ‘tourism war room’ to handle communication and messaging around the new variant.

“Constant communication, information dissemination and liaison, and direct communication between South Africa and specific tourism markets would go a long way to allay fears and concerns. We need to be proactive when it comes to travel red lists. This may save jobs that could potentially be lost,” it said.

The World Travel and Tourism Council indicated that at least 470,000 tourism and travel sector jobs have been lost, contributing an astronomical decline of R181 billion to the South African economy.

Stats SA also reported that the overall number of arrivals and departures of tourists has decreased by 71% with little signs of improvement in the foreseeable future.

Sun International chief operating officer for hospitality, Graham Wood, had a more optimistic view of the situation, saying that, while the loss of international tourists is disappointing, most of the bookings in the group’s portfolio of hotels and resorts are from domestic tourists.

“Sure, it was disheartening to wake up to the news that we’re back on the UK’s red list, along with a number of our neighbouring countries, but the majority of our bookings for the season are from domestic travellers, so we’re still preparing for a really busy season,” he said.

“[Sun International] traditionally welcomes overseas tourists at this time, but we and our colleagues in the Cape Town Hotel industry…foresee an increase in bookings from local travellers for December and January. I am also confident that other self-drive destinations such as Durban and Umhlanga will be busy over the summer holiday period.”

However, the local implications of the variant are still not known. Health minister Joe Phaalha said in a Thursday briefing that the variant caught the government by surprise and that meetings would be held in the coming days to determine the most effective response.

While he said that it was too early to predict what the exact line of action will be, he noted that the government has learnt a number of lessons over the past 21 months on what causes a Covid-19 wave to emerge and how to prevent the spread of a new variant.

He specifically noted an increase in travel out of Gauteng over the December holiday period as a possible cause of concern.

Direct impact

An immediate and more direct casualty of the bans is Flight Centre, which announced that it cancelled its Black Friday deals.

The Flight Centre Travel Group (FCTG) announced that it made the decision to cancel its Black Friday sale to, as a first priority, assist those customers who are affected by the bans.

“Our number one priority is to assist our customers at this time,” said Andrew Stark, Flight Centre Travel Group MD. “To wake up to this news and be in this position again is simply devastating. We envisage there will be a domino effect with other countries following suit as we have seen before.

“We are aware many of our customers were looking forward to Black Friday shopping but believe the responsible thing to do given the current uncertainties is to sadly cancel our Black Friday sale so that our experts can focus all their energy on assisting our customers at this time.

“We cannot emphasise enough how important it is for our country to achieve an 80% plus vaccination rate so that we can proactively put an end to these situations unfolding.”

The South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry said that wider business will also be directly impacted, as the announcement has added to more anxiety, which will certainly affect business confidence.

“Of concern to us as business is the need for better communication by the department of health. Whilst we cannot question the science and ability of our scientists to do the right thing, we have to question the purpose of creating the panic that the public announcement has no doubt created,” it said.

“The department of health could have handled the communication better, taking into consideration the impact on the economy, international trade partners and the public at large, without compromising on the scientific standards and any compliance requirements on protocols established with the WHO.”


Read: More countries close borders to South Africa over new Covid variant fears

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‘Premature’ travel bans leave South Africa in the lurch