President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: SUPPLIED
President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: SUPPLIED

As expected, President Cyril Ramaphosa rolled back some of the last remaining restrictions on economic activity, bringing much-needed relief to the battered tourism and aviation industries. The opening of the country’s borders from October was by far the standout announcement.  

“We are ready to open our doors again to the world, and invite travellers to enjoy our mountains, our beaches, our vibrant cities and our wildlife game parks in safety and confidence,” the president said in his televised speech on Wednesday.  

With the global health crisis far from over, only the most optimistic will expect this announcement to result in a flood of arrivals. Unfortunately, it’s still a long road ahead and many of the businesses in tourism that were the main drivers of employment before March 2020 will be lost forever. Still, it’s good news for the industry, which was plunged into its deepest crisis ever.  

It is also good news for the aviation sector, especially budget airline Comair after the Covid-19 pandemic found it already in terrible shape and forced executives to file for business rescue, giving it protection from creditors while turnaround specialists prepared it for a financially healthier take-off.  

Though there’s reason for the industry to be optimistic, it should be tempered by the government’s thinking that opening our borders will not mean free-for-all travel possibilities.  

Travel will be under strict protocols to ensure we do not import the virus, including limiting ports of entry to three main airports. Visitors will also need to present a negative Covid-19 test not older than 72 hours from the time of departure and if they have not done so, they would be required to remain in mandatory quarantine at their own cost.   

It’s not foolproof but it is a plan that acknowledges that the virus would live among us until at least the time a vaccine is developed and rolled out.

Perhaps what will be keeping executives in the travel and tourism industry awake at night will be Ramaphosa’s statement that travel from certain countries that have high infection rates may be restricted. He did not specify if this means more stringent conditions or outright bans, which could kill off any hope of a recovery.

That portion of Ramaphosa’s speech immediately puts the spotlight on Europe, traditionally SA’s biggest source of tourists and the hard currency they bring. While data from Europe indicates that Covid-19 is becoming less deadly, infection rates are rising again, with some countries, such as the UK, considering localised lockdowns in some cities and regions.

According to data from the European Centre of Disease Prevention and Control this week, the two-week rolling average of the case count has been increasing for more than 50 days, with more than half of all EU countries experiencing an increase in cases.

India, a major partner in Brics with which SA has deep historical and economic ties, is going the wrong way and is only behind the US, with about 5-million cases. Brazil’s handling of the virus has been disastrous from the start and the World Health Organisation has warned that South America as a whole may be opening up too soon.

All this shows there will have to be some creativity and nimble thinking as banning all these countries cannot be a realistic option. About a third of the more than 10-million international visitors who spent almost R120bn in SA in 2019 came from Europe, with the UK as the biggest source. The tourism industry has a long and deep supply chain into industries such as vehicle manufacturing and agriculture, and it is crucial that its potential be maximised while minimising the health risks.

Germany, for example, had some success with mass testing at its big airports when it opened up. There are obvious issues with capacity, but this could be one of the options for people travelling from high-risk countries. Longer quarantine periods — but not so long that they discourage visitors — and a higher number of tests could be another.  

Players in tourism will be anxiously waiting for the details.

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