On Thursday (25 November), South African health authorities and scientists announced the discovery of the new B.1.1.529 variant.
The variant, which was later given the Greek name ‘Omicron’, has led to a worldwide closure of borders as uncertain governments move to protect their citizens from the new Covid-19 variant.
While it has subsequently emerged that Omicron has been in circulation for at least a month and may not have even originated in Africa, South Africa has borne the brunt of these travel restrictions as it was the first country to flag the variant through its world-class genomics facilities.
A mapping tool developed by travel website Skyscanner shows that as of 1 December, South Africa has 87 ‘major restrictions’ from other countries in place. This is up from around 60 significant restrictions in mid-2021. These countries have suspended travel, may be closed to entry, or entry may only be possible if you are a citizen/meet strict entrance requirements.
By comparison, there are currently 23 moderate restrictions for South Africa, where travel is possible, but only if travellers meet specific entry requirements, including taking Covid-19 tests and quarantining.
Some of the key restrictions include:
- Australia – Australia has marked South Africa as a level 4 ‘do not travel’ risk. On 27 November, the Australian government announced that Australian citizens, permanent residents or their dependents who have been in South Africa in the past 14 days must undergo supervised quarantine for two weeks regardless of vaccination status upon returning to Australia. Direct flights from South Africa to Australia have also been suspended.
- The UK – The UK government has placed South Africa onto its much-maligned travel ‘red list’, barring entry for all travellers except UK nationals who will have to quarantine.
- The European Union – The EU has placed a blanket travel ban on Southern Africa, with only residents allowed entry.
- The US – The Biden administration implemented a travel ban on South Africa on Friday. In a subsequent press conference, the US government said that the ban was not introduced to punish South Africa but rather to protect the American people.
Local industries hit
A survey conducted by the Western Cape government shows that the travel restrictions have already had a significant impact on the province’s hospitality and tourism sector, with international travellers cancelling bookings en masse.
As of 14h00 on 30 November 2021, the survey has received a total of 635 responses, predominantly located in the Garden Route, Cape Town and Cape Winelands. The results show:
- 77% of respondents have had cancellations from clients for December 2021 bookings. 41% of respondents said that 50% or more of their December 2021 bookings were cancelled.
- 59% of respondents have had cancellations from clients for January 2021 bookings. 29% of respondents said that 50% or more of their January 2021 bookings were cancelled.
- 31% of respondents have had cancellations from clients for February 2021 bookings. 13% of respondents said that 50% or more of their February 2021 bookings were cancelled.
- 90% of respondents anticipated that their revenue between December 2021 and February 2022 would be lower due to international bans.
- 62% of respondents said they will lose 50% more of their revenue over the same period.
The national government has called for the lifting of these travel bans with immediate effect, calling them unscientific and unjust.
“We reject that in the strongest terms because to us it amounts to discrimination against a country like ours and some countries in Southern Africa, in fact, we should be applauded as South Africa for having alerted the world about this variant that is now beginning to spreads around the world,” said president Cyril Ramaphosa.
“We have shown the world that we are transparent; it is our responsibility to the world to demonstrate and show that we have found this variant, and the least we expected is to be punished by various countries.
“That to us is most concerning, that is why we have come out in total rejection of these bans that have been imposed on Southern Africa and we are also insisting that these bans must be removed and lifted, because you do not try and contain a virus through imposing bans unscientifically and indiscriminately,” he said.
The president said that the world has advanced to a point where we now know that they should be tested on departure and arrival when people travel.
“We have got the tools and means to be able to deal with this; this also goes against the G20 roam spirit where the G20 countries agreed that we must open travel because the tourism industry around the world has really been devastated – and for us, the tourism industry is one of the key industries and for Southern Africa as well.
“This is unfair and discriminatory against us, and they are imposing an unfair punishment, and we reject it, and we call on them to lift it with immediate effect,” the president said.