Sunday Times

SA’s push to reverse tourism collapse

Minister in talks to assure government­s that SA’s vaccine rollout is on track


● SA is engaging foreign government­s to allay fears about the country’s slow Covid-19 vaccine rollout, in a new drive to sell SA as a tourist destinatio­n open to foreign travellers.

The initiative is taking place as a growing number of countries impose travel restrictio­ns on people coming from SA, and against a backdrop of a tourism industry brought to its knees by Covid restrictio­ns.

More than 120 countries have implemente­d restrictio­ns on South African travellers, including self-funded quarantine­s of up to two weeks. Most airlines still flying to SA are refusing to carry South African passport holders on outbound flights.

The general travel slump and the ban on incoming flights are costing airlines and SA billions in lost revenue — airport operator Acsa alone posted a R1.47bn loss in the first half of its financial year, down from a R125m profit previously. The number of departing passengers fell 66% from 21.4-million in 2019 to 7.4-million in 2020.

Tourism minister Mmamoloko KubayiNgub­ane said her department is working hard to get tourists back. “I have started engaging internatio­nal ambassador­s and partners globally. We are done with Germany, where we were able to get featured in a number of radio stations, TVs and newspaper articles just to advocate the issue that we are open as South Africa.”

Her department is also working hard to persuade Emirates to resume passenger flights from SA, and Qatar Airlines is increasing its flights.

“There are quite a number of battles that we have to fight to get our numbers back. It’s not easy. Sometimes it feels like chasing a moving target. Right now, people are starting to talk about a third wave, then you start worrying about that as well.”

Kubayi-Ngubane said she had begged the presidency to improve communicat­ion on the vaccine rollout, echoing complaints from political parties and many sectors of civil society over several weeks that there is not enough detail available.

The minister said her department had given feedback to the presidency that “we need to intensify the work around communicat­ing where we are in relation to the vaccine”.

Tourism Business Council CEO Tshifhiwa Tshivhengw­a said yesterday: “The only thing that will get travel and tourism back on track is a faster vaccinatio­n of our population. This will get tourism going faster, many airlines will return and Acsa will make more money.”

Western Cape premier Alan Winde, whose province’s economy is worst affected by the tourism slump, said he gets “quite angry” about the pace of vaccinatio­ns.

“We should be ahead of the curve in Africa and now we are seeing other countries in Africa ahead of us when we are the country where the research was happening. We are the country with the universiti­es,” he said.

“We had so many vaccine companies coming here to do research. I am not happy with the delay.”

Countries with restrictio­ns on travel to and from SA are attempting to block the spread of the highly contagious 501Y.V2 variant of the coronaviru­s that was first detected in SA at the end of last year.

Kubayi-Ngubane said the variant put SA on the back foot. “It did affect [us] negatively because there was a lot of misunderst­anding and miscommuni­cation. Only to find that UK has a variant, the US has a variant — everybody has a variant,” she said.

“But as you know in terms of internatio­nal markets and internatio­nal discussion­s, for that message to go out it actually takes a bit longer.”

The minister said the idea of a vaccine passport would go to the cabinet in a few weeks, and SA is pushing, in talks at the UN and the World Trade Organisati­on, for an agreement that all internatio­nal borders

should be reopened to help the world return to normality after a year of lockdowns.

“What we are currently in discussion on is whether if a person says: ‘I have been vaccinated’, do they still have to produce a negative test result? We are looking at this globally and you see this is what Europe is doing, they are testing it. So we will continue to observe how globally that is being used.”

Kubayi-Ngubane said SA has no remaining restrictio­ns on foreign visitors, beyond requiring a negative Covid-19 test, but Flight Centre SA MD Andrew Stark said South African travellers are struggling to get to destinatio­ns. A VIP customer who needed to get to the US was faced with a trip that included a 14-day quarantine in Nigeria or Kenya followed by a two-day stopover in the Caribbean.

As well as having to supply valid negative Covid-19 tests, all travellers to the UK and EU have to quarantine for 10-14 days at their own expense in government-appointed hotels.

Fifteen airlines have either halted flights to SA or have heavy restrictio­ns on passengers. Emirates is flying inbound passengers but only cargo on outbound flights, and Delta, United, Qantas, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic will not resume flights to SA until May-July at the earliest.

KLM and Air France are still flying to SA, but outbound flights are limited to EU nationals or South African citizens who are continuing to another destinatio­n outside the EU. Lufthansa and Swiss are accepting only their own citizens for outbound flights.

South African passport holders can travel to Southern African Developmen­t Community countries as well as the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Zanzibar without quarantine. Travellers have to supply negative Covid-19 test results before departure, and fresh tests are required to re-enter SA.

Tshivhengw­a said the tardiness of the vaccine rollout — due to begin only in midMay, according to a parliament­ary briefing this week by health minister Zweli Mkhize — means a return to normality in the tourism sector will be delayed.

“Here is another [thing] that is making this thing difficult; the whole issue of 501Y.V2 needs to be properly communicat­ed,” he said. “Countries in the northern hemisphere look at it as a more dangerous strain and that is more problemati­c.

“We need to do more work around that from the government point of view. We are being stigmatise­d here and we need to do something about it. If we don’t, tourism will be slower and there won’t be any income.”

Winde said: “We must understand that 501Y.V2 is in 75 countries around the world, we are not unique to it and there are other variants all the time. I think the world is understand­ing what is happening and we’ve got to be able to just position ourselves.”

SA-based Airlink has seen its feeder business evaporate as travel bans stay in place, said CEO Rodger Foster. Domestic and regional travel is making a slow comeback, Foster said, but the airline is operating at about 60% of its capacity.

Airlink has been developing new routes to help make up the losses in internatio­nal arrivals, which it used to feed to destinatio­ns such as Hoedspruit and Botswana for local game lodges. Other destinatio­ns remain shut. “Madagascar’s borders are closed,” said Foster, adding that there is no indication of when it and other destinatio­ns such as St Helena would reopen.

Of SA’s 24 key source markets, countries in Africa show low travel prospects and the US, EU, Brazilian and Australian markets show “very low travel prospects”, says SA Tourism in its “Road to Recovery” report. “Most countries are still 90% lower than the previous year.” The organisati­on says vaccinatio­n offers the only viable solution for the travel sector’s recovery.

Stark said Flight Centre’s income from domestic travel in March was R250m, a 44% increase on February.

John Ridler of Thompsons Holidays said: “We have seen a huge increase in demand for domestic travel as well as regional travel.”

Game lodges, farm stays and small beach resorts are particular­ly popular, as are destinatio­ns such as the Maldives and Zanzibar. “This is starting to have an impact on domestic bookings,” he said. “It’s good for our economy.”

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Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane

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