South Africa reopened its borders for international travel on 01 October 2020, as part of the relaxed rules in level 1 of lockdown. The decision has been widely welcomed by the tourism and business events sectors, both of which rely on international audiences for a substantial amount of work and revenue. However, concerns have also been voiced around the regulations that have been put in place.

One bone of contention is the banning of leisure tourist arrivals from high risk countries. (Business travellers with scarce skills, diplomats, investors, and those participating in sports and other special events are excluded from this ban.)

“High risk countries are those with higher numbers of COVID-19 infections and reported deaths compared to South Africa.”

Among the countries on the currently banned list are Brazil, France, the UK and the USA, which are key source markets for the local tourism industry. (See the full list here.)

South African Tourism explained in a press release how the risk profile of countries is established: “South Africa has developed a risk categorisation model for different countries. This model classifies countries according to a scale of high, medium and low risk. High risk countries are those with higher numbers of COVID-19 infections and reported deaths compared to South Africa. Medium risk countries have a relatively equal number of infections and death toll to South Africa whilst low risk countries have a lesser number of COVID-19 infections and death toll in comparison to South Africa.”

South African Tourism CEO, Mr Sisa Ntshona, added, “While many of our key source markets feature in the high-risk category, meaning that they are not able to travel to South Africa for leisure purposes yet, the environment is fluid and changes constantly. We remain optimistic and encouraged by the gradual phased opening of our sector and we will monitor the changes regularly, as the country lists are reviewed every two weeks.”

Tshifhiwa Tshivhengwa, CEO of Tourism Business Council of South Africa (TBCSA), said, “We are pleased that international borders are finally reopening so that the tourism sector can get back to work, contribute to the economy and save jobs. This is what we have been lobbying for fervently for many months. However, it is critical that Government meets with private sector as a matter of urgency to clarify the method used to draft the list of high-risk countries and the practicalities surrounding this suggested phased reopening, so that this can be examined and its feasibility determined.”

“We are not preparing to welcome their entire population. Rather, a small sanitised travel population from this country who will be pre-screened and risk-managed throughout their journey.”

In particular he argues that the requirement that a traveller present a negative Covid-19 test on arrival in South Africa (taken within the past 72 hours) and follow all health and safety protocols, means that it should not matter which country they come from.

David Frost, CEO of the Southern African Tourism Services Association (SATSA), echoed this sentiment, saying; “It doesn’t matter what level of infection there is in the source country. We are not preparing to welcome their entire population. Rather, a small sanitised travel population from this country who will be pre-screened and risk-managed throughout their journey.”

SATSA has launched a new micro site with current regulations, acts, FAQs, etc. that relate to international travel under alert level 1 of lockdown. You can access it here.

The risk profile of all countries will be reviewed and potentially adjusted every two weeks, which Tshivhengwa also highlights as problematic; “Inbound international travellers need time to plan their travel. Changing the list of unbanned countries every two weeks introduces a layer of complexity and uncertainty that will lead to erratic booking cycles and confusion amongst travellers.

“Changing the list of unbanned countries every two weeks introduces a layer of complexity and uncertainty that will lead to erratic booking cycles and confusion amongst travellers.”

“It will also deter foreign governments from giving the green light for their citizens to travel to South Africa as they seek certainty about our entry requirements, as well as deter airlines from operating on the route. There are just too many nuances in tourism for a phased international reopening to be practical, especially if the goalposts change continuously.”

Glenton de Kock, CEO of the Southern African Association for the Conference Industry (SAACI), spoke to Tourism Update and said, “For any business event you need certainty across the board regarding dates and market access.”

He also believes that closer collaboration is needed between the public and private sector to ensure the best outcomes for everyone, and that greater coordination in messaging is essential between government departments – as a lack of a clear and cohesive message “potentially sends the message that Destination South Africa is not ready to welcome tourists.”

“Complexity, complexity and more complexity.”

The travel sector admits that the current context is a difficult one to navigate. Andrew Stark, Flight Centre Travel Group Managing Director Middle East and Africa, describes it as; “Complexity, complexity and more complexity. The ever-changing travel regulations and requirements from the different destinations across the world make for a travel landscape that will be difficult to navigate.”

The Flight Centre Travel Group anticipates that South African leisure tourists will initially start travelling to the SADC countries and popular Indian Ocean islands like Zanzibar and Mauritius, and avoid ventures further afield.

“Now more than ever, travellers need an expert in their corner to help them navigate testing and visa requirements, as well as departure and arrival protocols.”

Otto de Vries, CEO of the Association of Southern African Travel Agents (ASATA), said, “We see some logistical challenges, such as travel insurance and visa requirements, but are very encouraged to hear that the South African Government has given the green light to travellers based in South Africa to travel for any reason they wish to anywhere in the world.”

He added, “Now more than ever, travellers need an expert in their corner to help them navigate testing and visa requirements, as well as departure and arrival protocols. Entrusting their travel arrangements in the capable hands of a travel company that is accredited with ASATA will ensure they have access to up-to-date information and can travel with peace of mind.”

Click here to read Minister Fikile Mbalula’s speech on Alert Level 1 Regional and International Travel.