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.”