CEO of SA Tourism, Sisa Ntshona's column (10 September), When will international tourism resume? refers to the metric used by the UK government to assess whether a country is safe to be added to its COVID-19 Travel Corridor list. Countries deemed safe are exempt from advice against “all but essential" international travel by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO).
Other countries are implementing a similar system, based on the seven-day cumulative number of new cases.
This method is completely flawed and unscientific. Using new daily cases as a metric means a country can avoid being listed in the ‘red zone’ by simply testing less. Countries that test more, which is a hallmark of responsible management of COVID-19, will have more cases to report even if active cases and percentage of positive tests are still coming down, hospitals are not overwhelmed and mortality rate is low.
And countries that hardly test at all, or do not report their daily testing data, such as Tanzania, appear in the ‘green zone’.
Referring to a positive test result as a "case" is also unscientific, according to Dr Malcolm Kendrick from the UK. In medicine, a case is someone with symptoms, not someone who tests positive.
A more reliable metric than cumulative new cases would be ‘percentage positive’ - the percentage of positive tests, regardless of number of tests. This gives a clearer picture of whether the prevalence of COVID-19 is increasing or decreasing. And even this metric is flawed, unless testing is widespread. If you only test cases with symptoms reporting to health facilities, the percentage positive rate will remain high. The best metric will be a combination of COVID-19 deaths, active cases, cumulative new cases and percentage positive tests in the last seven days, to get a clear picture of how ‘safe’ a country is as a destination.
International travellers present a low risk
At this point, most international travellers present a very low risk of spreading infection. They are subject to testing and symptom checking at point of departure and arrival, and have to follow strict biosecurity protocols imposed by airports, airlines and the travel industry. They stay in hotels and lodges with strict safety protocols and have minimal close interaction with locals. On what basis would a few thousand international tourists from countries with similar or lower infection rates than ours present a greater risk of spreading COVID-19 than a local, domestic tourist?
There is no sound scientific basis for keeping borders closed and imposing travel bans based simply on cumulative number of new cases. The only purpose of closing borders was to keep the virus from being imported to our country. Most countries were far too late in closing borders - the virus had already been imported. Keeping the stable door closed long after the horse has bolted serves no purpose.
It is up to influential people such as Mr Ntshona and our honourable Minister of Tourism, Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane to challenge these unscientific notions that continue to keep borders closed and destroy what is left of our inbound and outbound tourism industry.
If we miss out on the reopening phase and delay recovery of inbound tourism, we will lose significant market share to other destinations that are open.
Influential people should support the industry they serve
I call on Mr Ntshona and Minister Kubayi-Ngubane to come out strongly in support of the industry they serve, to challenge the unscientific decisions and regulations made by the government, and to insist on behalf of the tourism industry that the NCCC (National Coronavirus Command Council) and DIRCO (Department of International Relations and Cooperation) put pressure on other governments to stop their arbitrary, unscientific travel bans which currently have all of Africa subject to the UK's FCDO advice against all but essential travel.