Despite Covid-19 threat, calls mount for international borders to reopen in SA
Calls are mounting for the South African government to reopen the country’s international borders after more than R68bn has been lost since the start of the lockdown.
Johannesburg - Covid-19 might have been imported into the country by international travellers, but there are calls from within the industry for the nation to fully open its borders.
While the sector has been granted some reprieve with domestic and inter-provincial travel currently being allowed under recently relaxed lockdown measures, experts warn that this is not enough to salvage the industry, which was one of the hardest hit by the global health crisis.
Official statistics reveal that a whopping 600 000 tourism and hospitality employees were forced to claim from the UIF Ters fund and the country lost up to R748 million each day tourism was unable to trade.
It is also believed that more than R68 billion in tourism spend has been lost since the lockdown began, with The Bureau of Economic Research estimating that if South Africa does not reopen its borders by the end of 2020, some 1.15 million jobs will be lost.
Tourism Business Council of SA (TBCSA) CEO Tshifhiwa Tshivhengwa told The Saturday Star this week that opening up international travel could salvage the industry, which contributes immensely to the South African economy.
“We are appealing to the government to open the borders in a fast way,” he said.. People are waiting to travel, so let's save jobs and the economy,” he said.
Tshivhengwa explained that while the tourism industry was “very resilient” and could recover from the effects of the coronavirus, urgent action needed to be taken now in order for that to happen.
“Let’s have a battle of how can we gain confidence and trust from the international and domestic market instead of having a battle of when we are going to fully open our borders.”
Tshivhengwa also insisted that the risk associated with travel was manageable as much more was known about the coronavirus than when it first began to spread at a rapid rate at the beginning of the year. “Travelling is as safe as going to the supermarket and many other things we do every day.”
The TBCSA chief executive added that Covid-19 prevention and containment protocols were similar around the world and that international travellers would be subjected to the same measures to those being exercised by South Africans.
“Overseas travellers are not reckless; they are well-organised and they go to specific places. We have to look at the risk that international travel poses to us and the benefits, which is R336 million a day if we get it right.”
But while SA Tourism said they were satisfied with the health and safety protocols in place to protect tourists and tourism employees from contracting Covid-19, they believed that the world might not yet be ready to travel on a regular basis.
“The sector is ready to welcome international travellers, but we might not be ready as a country as long as South Africa is still in the top five global list in terms of infection rate,” CEO Sisa Ntshona said.
He added that even those South Africans who wished to travel outside of the country might not be welcomed at their desired destinations because the nation was on many countries' travel advisory warning lists.
“The focus is to get us out of that top five global infection rate list so we can get out of the travel advisories,” explained Ntshona.
“South Africa is also looking at all the countries around the world and assessing that risk they could potentially impose on the country as well, because we should be careful not to import the virus back into the country.”
Meanwhile, the Southern Africa Tourism Services Association (Satsa), believes that a middle ground needs to be reached first before international travel can resume safely.
“For tourism to happen, it takes two to tango. Both the home country and the destination country have to be open and have favourable travel requirements such as no quarantine period, the easing of travelling, visas and air connections.”
“The tourism and travel trade are having to exercise extreme flexibility and assess things on a continuous basis because the situation is very fluid,” Satsa said.
All parties agreed that allowing inter-provincial travel under level two of lockdown regulations has come as a saving grace to the struggling tourism industry.
Ntshona said that domestic travel amounts to 56% of the total revenues generated from the sector. “It is not enough to take care of everyone, but it is significant,” he said.
Satsa said it believed that support from South Africans would help the local tourism industry in the short term but that the spike in demand for domestic travel would subside as the novelty wore off, and Tshivhengwa agreed.
“We have seen a great deal of interest from South Africans who want to travel around the country, but it’s not necessarily sustainable and could just be the excitement experienced in the first few months.”
Tshivhengwa added that while domestic travel generated much-needed income for the country at large, it could not exist without international tourism, whose spending power reached further than just the tourism industry.
“Around 12% of the retail sector is impacted by tourism, with many people from our neighbouring countries coming into South Africa to do shopping.”
While SA Tourism, Satsa and TBCSA shared the sentiment that the local tourism sector was resilient, they agreed that that the sector would take up to two years to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic.
But they also believed that there would always be a demand for the South African tourism market. “South Africa is the whole package and we have the product both local and international wants,” believes.
“We are the centre of tourism and we have beaches, mountains, safaris, high-end properties, cities, culture, food and wine which attracts people from all over the world, and that is why we should open our international borders,” said Tshivhengwa.
Satsa said it also considered that South Africa was a popular tourism destination due to the country’s diversity of product, value for money and the fact that it was a low-density destination.
They also believe that is a valuable sector as it employs thousands of people, especially among low and semi-skilled workers in rural and peri-urban areas and that about 70% of tourism employees are women and 60% are youth.
“As the second-largest generator of exports in South Africa, second only to mining, tourism is a low-hanging fruit that should be invested in to help restore our economy.”