After two years of pandemic restrictions that have decimated tourism, hopes across Africa of some recovery for the final quarter of 2021 and 2022 were high. Over the last few days, when the UK, swiftly followed by Europe and USA, announced travel bans to Southern Africa, hope turned to despair, as a deluge of cancellations flooded right across sub-Saharan Africa.
One of our members in East Africa, 2 000 miles away from the south, reported over US$150,000 of cancellations in the hours following the announcements.
Shades of 2015. At that time the Ebola crisis was contained to West Africa, but East and Southern Africa, at least 3 000 miles away suffered, and tourism collapsed across all regions. Time and again one regional problem shuts down tourism right across the world’s second-largest continent measured both by population and size.
When the UK Government announced the red list ban last week, they promised “a pause to buy breathing space”. That pause will create “a wait and see” situation that could take anything from three to six weeks for scientists to work through.
Will, for example, the new Omicron variant be more transmissible, cause more severe illness and bypass the current vaccines? Such uncertainty breeds further anxiety and international travel, as always, suffers.
The consequences for a red-listed country are indeed catastrophic, destroying the economy, employment and education, the very livelihoods of millions. In South Africa, tourism generates over 750 000 direct jobs and more than1.5 million indirectly. Today, the UNWTO warns that the pandemic could cost the global tourism industry as much as two trillion dollars, lost in tourism-related sales.
Deluge of cancellations
Tour operators, the buyers of African tourism, now face a deluge of cancellations and, at best, postponements, a painstaking administration process requiring hours of work for no financial reward. As one tour operator put it: “You would get better odds for making money on the roulette table.” A scheme for compensation in the event of cancellation is urgently sought or many tour operators will continue to face bankruptcy.
Travel measures were first introduced in May 2020 to protect against a resurgence of a second wave of the virus. But these knee-jerk restrictions, clearly a political placebo, do not work and have not only financial, but life-threatening implications.
Yes, sensible precautions like PCR testing and masks may be adopted, but banning international flights is not the answer. After all, we are still allowing people into the UK and Europe by road and sea. COVID-19 is here to stay for an exceptionally long time and variants will come and go. Governments worldwide must produce a coherent strategy and look at the bigger long-term picture.
They need to reflect on the data they have available and introduce a clear and concise risk assessment that understands the emotional and financial damage that travel bans cause, turning hope into despair. We must all learn to live with this virus and sensibly face each variant as it arises. Red lists and flight bans are not a sustainable response every time a Greek letter is attached to a new variant.