Picture: SIMON DAWSON/BLOOMBERG
Picture: SIMON DAWSON/BLOOMBERG

The travel industry breathed a sigh of relief on December 14 when it was announced that all 11 African countries on the UK’s so-called travel “red list” would be removed. The most immediate and noticeable effect is that UK nationals returning from previously red listed countries will no longer have to spend 10 days in quarantine hotels, while non-UK nationals will now be allowed to enter the UK once again, also without having to quarantine.

Vaccinated travellers will still be required to provide a negative PCR test before departure for the UK and will also have to provide a negative PCR test two days after arrival in the UK. It will be a hassle and it’ll be expensive but at least there will be no more extortionately expensive hotel quarantining on arrival in Britain.

Other European countries that have followed Britain’s lead in red listing the African countries will no doubt follow suit and remove their travel bans as well. But the damage has been done and the inbound tourist industry will be hoping travellers will once again beat a path to SA’s door, in search of sea, sun and exceptionally good value holidays, at least until the end of March 2022 , when the season ends.

But this whole debacle raises a broader question of how the global aviation and tourist industries can get back to a more normal existence next year and beyond. The Sars-CoV-2 virus will most likely continue to mutate, at least for as long as disparities exist between countries regarding vaccination rates.

Omicron is unlikely to be the last mutation of this virus and we have no idea whether the next variant will be more or less transmissible or more or less lethal than Omicron.  If governments react the same way they did with Omicron, the outlook for global aviation and tourism resuming normal service is not promising.  There has to be a better way.

That better way probably revolves around the issuing and acceptance of vaccine passports, notwithstanding the attendant perceptions associated with abuse of civil liberties. Up until the current Omicron upsurge, many European countries accepted proof of vaccination as the only criterion required for entry across their borders. Unvaccinated individuals were required to produce negative PCR tests less than 72 hours before departure. So it was certainly an incentive to get fully vaccinated.

Since Omicron, virtually all countries have retreated into a laager mentality and are now requiring onerous PCR tests for everyone, regardless of vaccination status. No doubt this approach will soften as the variant becomes better understood but, in the meantime, travellers will have to endure the inconvenience and substantial costs associated with multiple PCR tests. One small consolation arrived recently in this regard, with the SA Competition Commission managing to force local laboratories to reduce the price of PCR tests in SA from R850 to R500.

Ironically, Britain is now on the receiving end of travel bans, with France instituting a travel ban against UK travellers and Germany requiring all UK tourists to quarantine for 10 days.

Of course, in the longer term, when the great majority of the world is vaccinated and the scope for variants of concern (VoC) to arise has been diminished, the virus will likely fade away into the background and become endemic, though not especially lethal.

Until then, we have a choice — we can live with outrageously expensive and inconvenient testing in a stop/start world that stops every time a new VoC is discovered, or we can choose to go the vaccine passport route that allows relatively free movement of people across international borders.

The latter approach acknowledges that the virus will quickly find ways around and through international borders. The only exceptions to this are island states such as New Zealand that can be sealed off extremely effectively quickly. But after almost two years of isolation, New Zealand realises it has to come back into the fold, even if that means accepting a certain level of cohabitation with the virus.

• Gilmour is an independent investment analyst with Salmour Research.

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