Source: SA Tourism Gallery

Last week’s announcement by the Minister of Tourism, Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, that overnight leisure accommodation in one’s own province was now allowed, was hailed by some in the industry as a step in the right direction, while others – including  Cape Town’s Mayoral Committee Member for Economic Opportunities and Asset Management, James Vos – said it was “too little too late” to save a sector on its knees.

However, with South Africa’s COVID-19 peak in numbers expected to hit by late August/early September – after which the number of cases is expected to plateau – CEO of South African Tourism, Sisa Ntshona, cautions in his post below that long-haul travel is “still some time away”.

Putting people first to restore confidence

When the first wave of coronavirus-induced cancellations hit conferences and other in-person gatherings earlier this year, none of us knew the extent of the upheaval that lay ahead for the global tourism sector.

Months later, we have witnessed how the coronavirus ‘storm’ has left a trail of destruction that exceeds all scenarios we could have ever imagined or estimated. COVID-19 has decimated global economies and industries, including tourism and travel.

The South African tourism sector has not escaped the brunt of the pandemic. Between mid-March and the end of July 2020, the sector may have lost an estimated R88.8bn (€4.3bn) in output and 438 000 jobs are at risk.

Thankfully, we are now seeing a gradual reopening of the sector, with some destinations either easing or lifting travel restrictions.

Consistent with the message of our government, South African Tourism’s key message since the COVID-19 outbreak has been to put the preservation of human life at the centre of our response to the pandemic.

We are cognisant of our shared responsibility to preserve lives, regardless of the sector to which we belong.

SA Tourism’s message has been consistent. When it became clear that the virus was spreading to the rest of the world at an alarming pace, we went against the grain as tourism promoters and encouraged people to stay home. At the time, I said the consequences of the spread of the virus far exceeded the business impact.

As South Africa experienced the first few cases of the virus in early March, the Minister of Tourism convened a meeting with the private sector to discuss the possible scenarios of how we thought the pandemic was going to play out in South Africa.

In one of the scenarios, the Minister said cases of coronavirus were likely to peak between the third and the fourth quarter and that the impact of such a scenario on the sector was going to be severe, characterised by the closure of businesses and severe job losses. Sadly, that is what we are going through at the moment.

As of July 29, a cumulative total of 471 123 confirmed COVID-19 cases in South Africa has been recorded, with 7 497 deaths.

What does this mean for South Africa’s battered travel and tourism sector?

The South African tourism sector has done a great job of putting in place health and safety protocols, in a move that goes a long way to boost traveller confidence.

As we push for the gradual reopening of the tourism sector, we must remember our collective responsibility to slow down the rate of infections. What are the implications of these heightened infection levels on the propensity to travel?

A number of countries that have eased travel restrictions use a colour-coding system that classifies other countries into three zones – red, yellow and green – depending on their coronavirus risk.

These classifications determine who countries let in and travel to.  Countries falling under the green list are deemed “safe”, those in the yellow category are allowed in with some precautionary measures while those in the red category, are considered “unsafe.” The colour-coded system is a big factor for travellers looking for destinations to explore.

We need to make a collective effort to ensure that South Africa does not land up on the ‘red list’ of any country, particularly not our key source markets. We are currently in the top five of countries with the most COVID-19 cases, which puts us at risk of being classified as unsafe to travel to, whether for business or leisure.

Harder to predict what lies ahead

The changing patterns in the spread of COVID-19 make it harder to predict what lies ahead. A number of countries are worried about a looming ‘second wave’ of coronavirus infections. The environment is incredibly fluid. Spain, for instance, has experienced a surge in new infections, which has made the UK move Spain into its ‘yellow list’, meaning that those who travelled from the UK to Spain are now subject to an unplanned 14-day quarantine on their return. Germany has listed South Africa as a red country, a challenge because it is one of our key source markets with 322 720 tourists having travelled to our country in 2019 alone.

The greatest risk to travel and tourism recovery is the spontaneous imposition of restrictions, particularly a 14-day quarantine on travellers to and from countries. A surprise quarantine is clearly the number-one deterrent to travel beyond domestic.

To quote the UNWTO Secretary General, Zurab Pololikashvili, “Trust is the new currency of our new normal”. So, while our borders are closed, let us use this opportunity to bed down our health and safety protocols, and use domestic tourism as a means for us to build global confidence and trust. As part of building trust, the Minister of Tourism has indicated that industry health protocols will be officially adopted as country standards by the end of August.

Intra-provincial leisure travel is now allowed and this is indeed another victory for the sector locally. However, long-haul travel is still some time away.

In his more than 20 years of experience CEO of South African Tourism, Sisa Ntshona, has held several strategic leadership positions across different jurisdictions in Africa and the Middle East in blue chip corporations and multinationals. He has also worked for SAA.

An accountant by training, he holds a string of commerce qualifications including a Master of Business Administration from the University of Pretoria and an International Executive Programme from INSEAD Business School in France. He has also served on several boards, including as a non-executive board member for the Enterprise Development Council of South Africa.