One of the more interesting stories about the Covid-19 crises that have engulfed the world since March may have passed unnoticed in SA. Spain, one of the countries hardest hit by the pandemic, which has claimed more than 27,000 lives there, is proposing opening up to foreign tourists as early as July.

This is not an indication that Spain has won its battle with the coronavirus, having imposed one of the strictest lockdown regimes in Europe. In fact, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez also warned that Spain could not rule out the extension of a state of emergency that was in force almost two weeks before SA imposed its own lockdown late in March.

So, Sánchez can hardly be dismissed as an irresponsible leader in the mould of Donald Trump in the US or Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.

Spain is one of the world’s biggest tourism markets and the more than 80-million visitors it gets a year are a crucial source of revenue and jobs. It makes sense that the country would seek to preserve and promote the industry, while taking steps to ensure that this is done as safely as possible. 

“Spain needs tourism, and tourism needs safety in both origin and destination,” Sánchez is quoted as saying. This is equally true for SA, making the government’s lack of urgency in facilitating the sector’s return baffling, given what’s at stake.

Tourism minister Nkhensani Kubayi-Ngubane told Business Day last week that as many as 600,000 jobs could be lost in the sector by September. The sector “has come to a standstill for more than three months without an income” and this is “too much”, she said. We couldn’t agree more.

Tourism accounts for almost 10% of all jobs, and more than 8% of GDP. It is an industry with relatively low barriers to entry, and could therefore be an important tool to bridge injustices that have made SA one of the most unequal societies in the world.

That should be a strong enough argument for pragmatism to open the economy while taking steps to secure public health in the midst of the Covid-19 outbreak.

Which brings us to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement on Sunday pledging a positive move in the country’s lockdown levels, by one step, in June, though this has since been marred by yet more confusion.

SA cannot have a viable tourism industry without airlines to transport potential visitors across the country and from abroad. Ramaphosa’s statement promising a phased opening up of industry is a welcome step, but inadequate. The statement in itself was too vague to analyse with any sense of certainty.

What we know for sure is that accommodation and most domestic travel will remain among “certain high-risk economic activities” that will not be allowed, with business travel to be phased in over time. There is no indication that international flights will be allowed anytime soon, posing an existential threat to an industry that generates about R180bn annually.

FlySafair, which operates locally, has already indicated that it’s unlikely to resume flying under lockdown level 3. That makes sense as under the type of limited opening that’s proposed, it won’t be commercially viable for airlines to operate. On the contrary, it will cost them money and seal their fate, with lasting harm to the country’s prosperity.

SA, the second-biggest market in the continent behind Morocco, won’t match its recent strides that saw 15-million foreign tourists spending R120bn in the country in 2018. Closing the country to potential visitors will make those losses permanent.

Just like the unwise ban on alcohol exports that initially kept our products out of supermarkets in key markets while competitors had a field day, failure to open our skies means we will simply fall off visitors’ radar. In the uncertain environment we find ourselves, opening up won’t in itself lead to a flood of tourists. But SA needs to stay in the game.

Getting our pre-coronavirus share of the global tourism market was one of the biggest dividends of democracy, and Ramaphosa should follow Sánchez’s example, or risk being remembered for squandering it.

Having once described tourism as Africa’s “new gold”, he risks turning it into dust.

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