From travel bans to COVID-19 curbs, how Omicron is affecting South Africa's tourism and safari industry

Helpless and furious, South African tour operators are flooded with cancellations as countries follow Britain's decision to ban travel from the region over the discovery of a new coronavirus variant.

FP Staff December 08, 2021 10:19:51 IST
From travel bans to COVID-19 curbs, how Omicron is affecting South Africa's tourism and safari industry

Representational image. AP

Recent travel bans imposed on South Africa and neighbouring countries in response to the discovery of the omicron variant in southern Africa have hammered the country's business, already hard hit by the pandemic.

It’s estimated that the resulting reductions in travel in 2020 alone wiped $4.5 trillion from the global tourism economy and cost millions of jobs.

In Africa, half of all the people working in tourism lost their jobs in 2020. A recent United Nations Conference on Trade and Development report estimates a further $1.7-$2.4 trillion could be lost from the global tourism sector by the end of 2021. In Africa, these losses are projected at $170-253 billion.

Tourism industry

Helpless and furious, South African tour operators are flooded with cancellations as countries follow Britain's decision to ban travel from the region over the discovery of a new coronavirus variant.

"This is a knee-jerk reaction but with such a strong snowball effect," said Richard de la Rey of Dark Giraffe Marketing, which organises safaris and beach holidays in Mozambique, Tanzania and South Africa.

"No one knows anything about this variant at all and they just assume the worst," he huffed.

High-paying foreign tourists were just starting to return to South Africa, renowned for its wildlife and natural vistas, after the country was shut off from the rest of the world for most of 2020.

Countries then blacklisted South Africa after another variant was found in December -- a crippling blow as tourism directly accounts for three percent of the nation's economy and provided more than 700,000 jobs before the pandemic.

Britain only removed it from its dreaded coronavirus "red list" in October this year, before which travellers were forced to undergo an expensive hotel quarantine upon return to the UK.

"As a safari operator we had seen a really nice uptick in October," Andre Van Kets, co-founder of Discover Africa Group, told AFP.

"Booking rates shot through the roof compared to the pandemic era and we were really optimistic... so to have the hand brake pulled up so suddenly is very significant," he added.

International visitors represent 90 percent of the company's clients. Most come from the UK and the United States, and Van Kets said he dreaded a similar announcement from the White House.

Travel agencies were meanwhile swamped with holidaymakers seeking to change their bookings.

"We are mostly dealing with cancellations from people who cannot fly," said Morongoe Khoboko, who works for Corporate Traveller Evolution in Johannesburg. "It's been a crazy morning," she exclaimed.

Many feel South Africa's blacklisting is unjust. They note that the country has stricter coronavirus rules than many Western nations, including mandatory face masks in public and caps on gatherings.

"I am a real big rugby fan and I see stadiums full with 50,000 people... but South Africa is still the problem?" asked de la Rey.

Vaccine uptake has been low, however, with just around 35 percent of the population fully jabbed after a slow campaign start and widespread hesitancy.

Governments "panic and I get that to a certain extent, but there has got to be a better way," said de la Rey. "It seems we, and the African continent in general, are the scapegoat."

Safari industry

South Africa's tourism industry suffered a more than 70 percent drop in foreign tourists in 2020, with COVID-19 blamed for the drop from about 15 million visitors in 2019 to less than 5 million in 2020. Tourism employs about 4.7 percent of South Africa's workforce.

Britain, the largest source of tourists to South Africa, lifted its “red list” travel restrictions on South Africa in October and safari operators were beginning to see an improved outlook for the holiday season and 2022. But then the news of omicron struck, bringing a new round of international restrictions on flights.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has criticized the travel bans imposed by Britain and many others, including some African countries as “hypocritical, harsh and not supported by science.” He denounced the restrictions as “travel apartheid.”

South African safari lodges are experiencing cancellations and few new reservations, said Fred Plachesi, owner of the Tamboti Bush Lodge in the Dinokeng Game Reserve, north of the Tshwane metropolitan area, which includes Pretoria.

With only four guests over the weekend, Plachesi said his business is feeling the damage. He believes the travel bans imposed on South Africa are unfair and will have a negative impact on the people of South Africa.

“I really think it’s very unfair for the country ... it’s the South African people and businesses and that suffer," said Plachesi.

He hopes that many countries will reconsider their flight bans and allow travel to and from South Africa again.

“The year 2022 was looking quite bright because the borders were now open, and everybody was happy," said Plachesi. “We were starting to have confirmations of bookings. It was looking very good.”

But now he is gloomy about the coming year. “After this, omicron, it seems that (a slump) is going to happen again like in 2021,” he said. "So international guests and others then cancel."

Among the few overnight guests at the lodge were South Africans Tebogo Masiu and Smagele Twala, who wanted a break from their schedules in Johannesburg. They said they are dismayed by the new travel restrictions on South Africa.

“For people who are running businesses interlinking South Africa and other countries and raising the economy of South Africa ... that is damaging,” said Masiu, sitting at an empty bar with only his partner and the lodge’s owners for company.

“It’s unfair. They are victimizing us,” Twala said.

With the outlook bleak for 2022, Plachesi and his business partner try to keep the empty rooms ready in the hopes that at least local visitors will embark on a safari tour.

Sports industry

Golf, cricket and rugby became the first major sports to be affected by the new COVID-19 variant, prompting fears of renewed travel restrictions and disrupted events just as they were returning to normal nearly two years into the pandemic.

European golfers withdrew midway through the season-opening DP World Tour tournament in Johannesburg and were scrambling to catch flights out of South Africa. Visiting cricket and rugby teams were doing the same.

Golf was the first to be hit by the emergence of the new B.1.1.529 variant. While the start of the World Tour was ruined, rugby games in South Africa in a new European-South African tournament were postponed "due to the sudden developments," organizers said. A tour to South Africa by India's cricket team next month was likely to be reconsidered, although there was no official comment yet.

"The physical and mental health of the players is the first priority,” the federation said.

Organizers of golf's Joburg Open said it would continue even after at least 23 mostly European players pulled out in the hours after South African health authorities announced they had detected the new variant. The tournament was later reduced to a 54-hole, three-round event ending “to help non-South African resident players, caddies and tournament support staff return to their home countries,” the organizers said.

The Joburg Open was scheduled to be the first of three events in South Africa to start the new season on the circuit formerly known as the European Tour. The Alfred Dunhill Championship set for December 9 to 12 was cancelled.

With inputs from agencies

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