Picture: THE TIMES
Picture: THE TIMES

In times of crisis and great uncertainty there’s an expectant hope and desire for unequivocally strong and decisive leadership. During these unprecedented times a clear direction is needed to quell anxiety and confusion about what the future holds for all South Africans.

For the travel industry the backbone of the entire sector is air access, and we must recognise that a definitive plan for SAA is inextricably linked to the survival and growth of tourism in SA after Covid-19. Over the past few months we’ve become increasingly concerned with the government's failure to adequately address SAA’s illiquidity and the dire consequences this poses for the industry long-term, as well as for brand SA.

A typical example: As of April 20, SA Airlink will no longer honour any tickets issued on SAA paper. While we have no problem re-issuing tickets, business rescue practitioners Siviwe Dongwana and Les Matuson have seen fit to simply change agreed terms and conditions and no longer honour refunds, but offer credit notes instead.

This is a clear contravention of the Consumer Protection Act and the guarantees that were put in place by SAA with both the International Air Transport Association (Iata) and the department of transport, and points directly to the illiquidity of SAA.

The government’s failure to honour its commercial agreement has resulted in R360m of government debt being laid squarely at the door of the tourism industry to absorb, in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis. Moreover, the government declined the request by the business rescue practitioners for additional funding, without any clarity on how the airline is going to remain solvent over this crisis period.

President Cyril Ramaphosa asked us to do our best to preserve jobs, and we have responded. He asked us to encourage guests to postpone trips rather than cancel, and we have responded. Our industry has united with a common purpose, but what is our government doing to assist us?

SAA’s illiquidity

Through these policy changes our industry is being forced to absorb SAA’s illiquidity and we have little alternative but to pass this R360m cost on to our clients, with devastating consequences for SA tourism.

 We may never recover from this breakdown in trust with an inability to hold the government accountable to its own laws. Booked tickets with express terms and conditions no longer mean anything. SA cannot afford a reputation of reneging on standard terms and conditions. If the travel industry is forced to absorb this debt, and pass it on to our guests, we can expect large numbers of cancellations and charge-backs, further setting back any hope of recovery.

While South Africans pull together to support the president and the country, is it really too much to ask for our government to do the same? Wilfully withholding tourism sector funds for services it cannot honour is tantamount to theft, and the consequences for our industry, our economy and our brand are dire. If we want a tourism industry post-coronavirus, from which to build our economy, Ramaphosa must intervene and settle this dispute urgently.

Our country needs to do everything possible, immediately, to safeguard our future flight network through SA Airlink. We look to the president to ensure there is a tourism industry on the other side of this pandemic. We are stronger together, and only with decisive leadership can we hope to welcome the world back to our amazing country when the chaos of Covid-19 has eased.

• Ryan is founder and CEO of Rhino Africa Safaris.

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