OR Tambo International Airport

Uncertainty over the current COVID-19 regulatory environment could see South Africa lose its strategic hub status.

This warning came during a briefing to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Tourism earlier this week by Board of Airline Representatives of South Africa (Barsa) Chairperson Carla da Silva, and CEO, Zuks Ramasia.

They highlighted the importance of “a co-ordinated, sensitive response at a country level when dealing with crises such as pandemics”, pointing out that the communication of the requirement for the negative 72-hour PCR COVID-19 test caused ructions in the aviation sector when borders opened on October 1, as airline crew members were also required to produce such tests.

“It would have been better if the relevant government departments had co-ordinated their response,” Barsa highlighted, noting that, as a result, some airlines had even threatened to leave South Africa and use neighbouring countries as their new hubs.

South Africa is currently the aviation gateway to Africa and Southern African Development Community countries, and the committee was informed that the post-COVID-19 recovery would be “long, uncertain and tedious”.

Airlines have a critical role to play in the tourism industry’s recovery from the devastation of the pandemic. Some airlines have reduced their capacity and frequency of flights to South Africa due to regulatory uncertainty.

Last week, Iata Regional VP for Africa and the Middle East, Muhammad Albakri, cautioned that restoring air connectivity on the African continent was vital to rebuilding economies, and governments needed to take urgent action to support their aviation industries, or the industry – which is over 100 years old – may not survive.

To make it more attractive for airlines to fly to South Africa, Barsa called for the relaxation of taxes and tariffs for landing fees, aircraft parking fees and passenger service charges.

The committee was also told that it was more expensive to travel to smaller airports servicing small towns than to big cities. This affects the geographical spread of tourists and makes domestic travel by air unaffordable.

‘Red list must go’

Barsa said it eagerly awaited the phasing out of red-listed countries for leisure, as leisure tourism was an economic enabler in the tourism sector.

Barsa’s call aligns with that of other industry bodies, such as the Tourism Business Council of South African (TBCSA) and SATSA, who have called on government to do away with its high-risk list or so-called ‘red list’ of COVID-19 hotspot countries, or risk facing more chaos in international travel to South Africa.

TBCSA CEO, Tshifhiwa Tshivhengwa, pointed out that business travel from countries on the list was already allowed.

“We see no difference to leisure tourists, who can follow the same COVID-19 rules, such as having a negative COVID-19 test 72 hours before arrival,” he said.

“The government reducing the number of countries on the high-risk list [from 60 to 22] is simply not good enough.”

SATSA CEO, David Frost, reiterated in a recent statement to Moneyweb.co.za, that government needed to work in partnership with the private sector of the tourism industry “in the interest and sustainability” of the industry.