Tourists won’t be back in South Africa anytime soon – and fears of future travel bans are causing long-term damage
- Travel to and from South Africa has been severely disrupted by restrictions imposed by more than 70 countries following the discovery of the Omicron variant.
- The already struggling South African tourism industry was betting on a busy summer season to recoup losses suffered during a year of restricted travel.
- But following the detection of Omicron, more than a billion rand of reservations were canceled.
- And vacationers are likely to rethink South Africa travel once restrictions are lifted.
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International travel bans imposed on South Africa following the discovery of a new variant of Covid-19 have decimated the tourism sector’s hopes of a busy summer season. The psychological effects of this rapid overall response are likely to deter vacationers any longer.
South Africa’s tourism sector, which supported nearly 800,000 jobs and contributed more than Rand 130 billion to the country’s economy before the Covid-19 pandemic, had hoped to recover some losses between December and March.
This optimism follows the easing of travel restrictions in October. The UK, which has historically been the country’s main source market for tourists, has removed South Africa from its restrictive red list after months of intense lobbying. Much of Europe and North America had also abandoned prohibitive quarantine measures.
Travel requests and reservations have poured in. Early estimates suggested that some 300,000 British passport holders would likely spend the summer in South Africa. Add to that the increased interest from other key markets, like Germany and the United States – which welcomed more than 65,000 visitors in December 2019 – and South Africa’s tourism outlook looked good.
But everything changed on Thursday, November 25. On that day, the South African Department of Health and scientists from the Genomic Surveillance Network revealed that a new highly mutated Covid-19 variant, Omicron, had been detected in Gauteng.
A wave of bans on travelers from South Africa followed. The UK has again added South Africa and neighboring countries to its red list, forcing all returning residents to self-quarantine at a government-run hotel. The floodgates opened and on Monday, within 72 hours of Omicron’s announcement, nearly 40 countries had imposed restrictions on travelers from South Africa.
Travel bans have been criticized by scientists and President Cyril Ramaphosa as unjustified, discriminatory and irrational.
It was argued that South Africa was being punished for its superior genomic surveillance measures and that Omicron had already started to spread to other parts of the world, undetected. It turned out to be probable.
But the “knee-jerk” reaction to impose immediate travel bans on South Africa resulted in the cancellation of more than R 1 billion of summer vacation bookings within 48 hours. The last number is likely to be much higher. As of Friday, the number of countries with restrictions on South African travelers had risen to more than 70. Omicron has been detected in 30 countries, many of which have imposed bans on South African travelers.
“Reservations canceled through overseas wholesaling [and] The retail channel is largely lost for good as risk mitigation requires these players to wait for stability, ”Martin Wiest, CEO of Tourvest Destination Management, told Business Insider South Africa.
“Most of our partners canceled everything until the end of January / February with no new bookings currently being taken, resulting not only in an immediate loss of revenue but also a delayed payback period.”
Wiest believes the new travel bans have delayed the recovery of South Africa’s tourism sector by three to six months.
And while the immediate loss of revenue is disastrous for an industry that was already hanging by a thread and relied on the summer season to recoup losses, the international reaction to the discovery of a new variant is likely to have lasting psychological effects. .
Travel bans imposed on South Africa following the detection of Omicron by scientists come after a similar discovery was made almost a year ago. In December 2020, South African scientists detected a variant that is believed to be known as beta.
The discovery led South African travelers to become the world’s smallest in just four months. It kept the country on the UK’s red list for 10 months, which cost the South African economy around R8 billion in lost tourism spending, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council.
The fear, for the South African tourism industry, is that the response to Omicron will create additional anxiety among would-be vacationers. These travelers will likely think twice before coming to South Africa, fearing that the detection of a new variant could immediately lead to costly cancellations and disruptions.
“We have seen 70% of our December files canceled or postponed further into 2022,” Craig Smith, managing director of New Frontiers, told Business Insider South Africa.
“Even if the restrictions were lifted this week, it is highly unlikely that these reservations will be reinstated. I think the market has taken a huge blow in confidence. The arbitrary nature of the restrictions, the immediacy with which they can occur, and the stress and associated financial cost will have a significant impact on the world of travel, not just southern Africa. “
Some players in the tourism industry are optimistic that restrictions on international travel will be lifted before the end of the year, while it is hoped that the data will show that Omicron is no more dangerous than the Delta variant.
“At the moment we are only postponing our clients for the next two weeks, until December 16th, our Christmas and New Years guests are all waiting to see if there is any relaxation of travel restrictions,” David Ryan , founder and CEO of Rhino Africa Safaris, said Business Insider SA.
“We actually advise guests that if they cancel and travel restrictions change, the likelihood of them getting availability again is low, especially in safari lodges, which fill up quickly with South Africans whose the trip abroad has been canceled. “
But Ryan also believes the recently imposed restrictions will have lasting effects in the minds of vacationers, especially those planning to travel to South Africa.
“It is the psychological impact that concerns us most, but we will not see the consequences immediately. The nature of the inbound trips to southern Africa is that it is a long-haul destination which is often “a lifetime trip.” As such, they contain a lot of planning and often have long delivery times, ”Ryan said.
“Superimpose that with the seasonality of Africa, and it’s easy to understand that inbound travel to southern Africa often takes three to nine months. What the world has just shown us is that Governments can change the rules as and when they want, and worse yet. on short notice. The risk of being caught in a long-haul destination for many customers causes great anxiety. “
“We expect this to be a big blow to our recovery, as uncertainty always does.”