Chris Mears, Managing Director for the UK-based Experience Africa Events – a subsidiary of the African Travel and Tourism Association (ATTA) – recounts how his SA trip was unexpectedly cut short and the challenge in getting back to London
Best laid plans…
South Africa finally came off the UK’s Red List in early October after essentially being closed off to the UK since December. From a personal perspective and having lived in Cape Town and being married to a South Africa we were itching to go and visit friends and family. From a professional perspective I was keen to re-connect with our members and host a networking event. Flights with our partner airline Ethiopian Airlines were booked, venue for our networking event secured and plans for a 10 day holiday made.
I arrived in Cape Town on Saturday, November 20, grateful to be back in the South African sun and back ‘home’ again and spent a very enjoyable weekend catching up with friends and celebrating my mother-in-law’s birthday at a wonderful restaurant in the winelands before finalising the plans for the networking event we were holding on Tuesday, November 23which included members who had decided to fly down from Johannesburg for the event.
Connecting in person once again was fantastic and the energy in the room was one of real positivity. Bookings were once again coming in; clients were keen to travel and the light at the end of a very long dark tunnel was bright. In my short speech, I mentioned that I felt that 2022 would be a rough ride, there would be bumps in the road but things would get substantially better and recovery was well on its way. It was smiles all round and I personally felt that the world had started turning again with ‘normal service’ beginning to resume once again.
Fast forward a couple of days to November 25 , out to the winelands once again to celebrate my birthday this time, again a wonderful day and as we were driving back into Cape Town we commented on the very low COVID numbers as they were announced on the radio and didn’t think too much about the discovery of a new variant.
As it was my birthday and as I was on holiday, I shut my phone off early in the evening only to look at it early the following morning to a flurry of news alerts, emails and messages from friends, family and industry colleagues ‘What Now?’ ‘How are you going to get home?’ My heart sank, not just for the impact on my holiday but for the enormous impact on the African tourism industry and all of those connected to it.
Weighing up options
After making a large, strong pot of coffee, it was time to start running through the options, stay in South Africa and enjoy the rest of our holiday as planned then work out how to return home, leave South Africa ASAP for another African destination and head there for 10 days prior to coming back to the UK, get into Europe and have 10 days there prior to coming back home or try to get straight back home on a flight that day.
As we have dogs, staying in South Africa for an unknown period of time was not an option for us, even though we both have residency rights and the thought of having to enter a quarantine hotel was far from appealing, so we needed to make arrangements to get home ASAP one way or another.
I felt that other African countries would be added to the red list in swift succession (which is sadly happening) so we needed to try and get off the continent as soon as possible if we were to get back home without having to spend close to £4000 for a quarantine hotel.
After a quick zoom call with the ATTA® Chairman, MD & President I spoke to the Ethiopian Airlines UK team to see what they could do to get us on Friday’s flight out via Addis Ababa to London and proceeded to pack our bags ready for a quick departure if necessary. About an hour later we got confirmation that my reservation had been confirmed and we had seats held for my husband which were duly paid for, and we needed to get to the airport immediately.
‘Air of tension’
After filling the hire car with petrol, we got to the airport to find long queues and an air of tension with people trying to get out while they could. Whilst queuing to check in, we completed our passenger locator forms and then I looked at my emails for the new tickets only to see that they had been issued out of Johannesburg, my original departure point. We were in Cape Town. In the urgency to get everything sorted I had forgotten to say to the Ethiopian team that I was still in Cape Town.
Another urgent call to Ethiopian in London who managed to get us two seats out of Cape Town and a confirmation that we could check in, get our boarding passes issued and head through security. The relief that we were going home and were not going to need to enter hotel quarantine was huge.
Now we needed to arrange for arrival, update the house sitter who had been looking after our dogs that we were coming home early and try and get hold of Heathrow Airport parking to change the booking so we could pick up the car in the morning to drive home. After 40 mins on hold whilst boarding the aircraft, I gave up trying to get hold of them so called upon my colleagues in London to help.
The flight from Cape Town to Addis was 100% full and included a group who had arrived in Cape Town that morning on BA from London, really not what they had expected for their holiday in South Africa. Passengers were connecting in Addis via a number of European gateways including Vienna and Frankfurt to get into London ahead of the red list sword coming down. Connecting through the recently upgraded Addis Ababa Bole International was smooth and straightforward even though there was some confusion around whether a PCR COVID test was required but, after showing completed passenger locator form and vaccination certification we boarded.
Again, this flight was 100% full of passengers who had fled in a similar way to us from Cape Town, Johannesburg, Windhoek and a number of other southern African destinations to get in ahead of restrictions.
Finally, arrival at Heathrow
It was a busy morning at Heathrow with close to two hour queues to clear immigration where we were told, once again, about our self-isolation obligations. Whilst we were in Addis, I had received email confirmation from my colleagues in London that my car would be there to be picked up, which it was, so we were able to head straight home.
On arrival we were surprised to find our NHS provided PCR tests, which we need to take on Day 2 were there, ready and waiting for us and after the stress of the preceding 36 hours, we were very relieved to be back home and happy that I had been able to call on the help and support of the Ethiopian Airlines team in London to make the necessary changes to our flights.
SA protocols are strict
South Africa’s domestic COVID protocols are strict, mask wearing is mandatory in any public space, including when you are outside walking around unless you are sitting in a restaurant. Hand sanitiser is at the entrance to every shop or public building and on entry to a restaurant or hotel you have your temperature taken.
COVID is being taken very seriously. In addition to this, they have a world leading scientific community who have picked up and reported the variant to the world. The UK Government has reacted very swiftly, some might say too swiftly, but in the past they have been accused of not reacting swiftly enough so what is right?
Now I hope that it’s just the pause button that has been pressed and that the global scientific community will be able to quickly undertake the necessary research, specifically around vaccine efficacy, and determine that the new variant does not pose a greater risk to communities around the world than the risk posed by existing variants. Then, based on that knowledge, the restrictions will be eased once again and the African travel community can start on rebuilding.
Consumer confidence affected
What cannot be changed however is the enormous dent to consumer confidence that this sudden change to the travel restrictions has caused. As (in normal times) a frequent traveller the need to make sudden and challenging changes to plans in order to get home was an extremely stressful experience.
Any traveller who had booked their trip independently and not used a good tour operator or travel agent would have been left to their own devices. Those who had make the wise decision to book their trip through reputable trade channels using a travel professional would have at least had them to call on but there are only ever a finite amount of seats on an aircraft and only a finite number of flights operating so we consider ourselves some of the lucky few who manged to get home before the gates closed.
I will be back in Africa again as soon as I can and will do all I can to get travel to Southern Africa moving again as quickly as possible.