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ea­ger for air travel to be opened, it is im­por­tant to open it up in a safe and re­spon­si­ble man­ner.”

“It can’t be a free-for-all, with any­one com­ing in. Peo­ple will al­ready be cau­tious and re­spon­si­ble when trav­el­ling, but let’s give peo­ple a chance if they want to travel,” says Tourism Busi­ness Coun­cil of SA CEO

Tshifhiwa Tshiv­hengwa.

“But we also have to look at coun­tries where peo­ple still have money to spend.”

Along­side the no­tion of air bridges is the op­tion of cre­at­ing broader “tourism bub­bles”.

While Aus­tralia looks set to keep its in­ter­na­tional bor­ders closed un­til 2021 — de­spite the grow­ing im­por­tance of its tourism in­dus­try — Aus­tralia and New Zealand are mulling a trans-tas­man tourism bub­ble, which would al­low rel­a­tively un­re­stricted travel be­tween two neigh­bours that have been world lead­ers in con­tain­ing the spread of coro­n­avirus. Fiji and other tourism-de­pen­dent Pa­cific is­land na­tions are also lob­by­ing to be in­cluded, ar­gu­ing that sup­port­ing their tourism in­dus­try will be more ben­e­fi­cial to re­cov­ery than aid pack­ages.

The same ar­gu­ment could ap­ply in South­ern Africa, with a re­gional tourism bub­ble quickly re­boot­ing in­tra-african travel, a sec­tor that is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly im­por­tant to SA’S tourism econ­omy.

“Though Europe has al­ways been our most im­por­tant mar­ket, if you look at the past few years our strong­est growth in net­work is on the African con­ti­nent,” adds Paul van den Brink, project man­ager of the Wes­gro Air Ac­cess Project. “The African mar­ket is im­por­tant for us, so there are def­i­nitely op­por­tu­ni­ties for re­gional busi­ness.

“Re­gional travel is crit­i­cal to SA open­ing suc­cess­fully,” agrees Sean Kritzinger, ex­ec­u­tive chair of tour op­er­a­tor Gilt­edge Africa. “I be­lieve there’ll be mu­tual pres­sure for all to open up bor­ders in­ter­na­tion­ally to­gether.”

Trust in the Covid re­sponse of neigh­bour­ing coun­tries is key, how­ever, to avoid im­port­ing a new wave of in­fec­tions. Key to the suc­cess of bub­bles is in­clud­ing coun­tries with a sim­i­lar rate of in­fec­tion, and virus con­trol. And, per­haps, a dose of trust.

“There are some re­gional des­ti­na­tions that have han­dled the virus very well,” says Zweigen­thal. “Most have rel­a­tively low Covid19 in­fec­tions, so we think we could mo­ti­vate op­er­at­ing be­tween re­gional states, and as gov­ern­ment feels more com­fort­able we could open fur­ther.”

“Re­gional travel is im­por­tant, but we can do this con­cur­rently with other mar­kets over­seas,” adds Tshiv­hengwa. “Start re­gional travel ear­lier than Septem­ber, so that we can re­fine the pro­cesses.”

An ar­gu­ment against a slow, phased re­open­ing is that with­out on­ward con­nec­tiv­ity ma­jor air­lines may not see the value in re­launch­ing long-haul routes.

SA may fall be­hind

On­ward con­nec­tions are “a pre­req­ui­site for in­ter­na­tional car­ri­ers to re­sume ser­vices to

SA,” says Da Silva. “Fail­ure to of­fer con­nec­tiv­ity will lead to SA be­ing by­passed, and los­ing its en­vi­able lead­er­ship as an in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal hub.”

There is also the risk that SA may get left be­hind in Africa’s tourism re­cov­ery, if it waits too long be­fore re­lax­ing rules on air travel.

With both Tan­za­nia and Rwanda al­ready lift­ing re­stric­tions on in­ter­na­tional flights, “it’ll only be a mat­ter of time be­fore other coun­tries like Kenya and Uganda do the same,” says Kritzinger.

“Trav­ellers have choices. We are not the only des­ti­na­tion in the world peo­ple can travel to,” warns Tshiv­hengwa.

“We need to have a date for re­open­ing so that we can start talk­ing to clients, start pre­par­ing, and start pro­tect­ing our for­ward book­ings.”

While the gov­ern­ment is stuck be­tween the rock of ris­ing in­fec­tions and the hard place of a tourism econ­omy on the ropes, in­ter­na­tional air­lines whose SA ser­vices are on hold wait ea­gerly for a firm in­di­ca­tion of when in­ter­na­tional bor­ders may be opened.

“The sooner we can get clar­ity the better,” says Van den Brink. “We know from some car­ri­ers that they want to come back as soon as SA al­lows them to, so that’s good news. I also think oth­ers will come back, but with less fre­quency. That’s what we see on the global stage as well.”

And, ul­ti­mately, the mar­ket will de­liver what cus­tomers de­mand. While the work to­wards air­port pro­to­cols and cre­at­ing in­ter­na­tional air bridges and travel bub­bles is cer­tainly a nec­es­sary step in re­viv­ing the be­lea­guered tourism in­dus­try, an equally im­por­tant ques­tion is, sim­ply: are we — are you? — ready to travel again.

Trust in the Covid re­sponse of neigh­bour­ing coun­tries is key, how­ever, to avoid im­port­ing a new wave of in­fec­tions

Make the bub­ble big­ger

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