South Africa travel
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  • International tourists are only expected to return to South Africa in 2022, once stringent restrictions on re-entry have been dropped.
  • Travellers from the UK and US, two of South Africa’s primary source markets, could be the first to return thanks to swift vaccination efforts.
  • But the tourism industry’s recovery will only be realised in 2024, at the earliest, according to travel projections supplied by the International Air Transport Association.
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US and UK tourists may be the first to return to South Africa in serious numbers, but only from 2022, according to South African Tourism, government’s marketing arm tasked with attracting visitors to the country.

The prospect of near-term travel to South Africa remains “very low” among 24 priority markets, according to the organisation’s “Road to Recovery” report which tracks Covid-19 caseloads, vaccination numbers and border restrictions.

The country’s battered tourism industry is only likely to begin its real recovery when key source markets achieve their Covid-19 vaccination goals and ease restrictions on re-entry.

The local tourism and hospitality industry had previously hoped for a rebound in the third quarter of 2021. But delayed global vaccination rollouts and the emergence of Covid-19 variants – like the 501Y.V2 mutation which was first discovered in the Eastern Cape – has reinforced international travel restrictions.

South Africa has been particularly hard hit by the recent wave of restrictions. And while the country’s borders remain open to tourists, stringent re-entry regulations – which often require returning residents to quarantine for up to two weeks – continue to subdue international arrivals by 90%.

Travellers from regional African source markets, like Nigeria, Kenya, Zambia and Malawi, are listed as being more likely to travel to South Africa compared to their European, Asian and North American counterparts.

But South Africa’s tourism industry, although wholly dependent on domestic and regional travellers during the pandemic, relies heavily on visitors from the United Kingdom (UK), Germany, the United States (US), France and the Netherlands.

Although Africa is the country’s largest source market – accounting for 77% of visitors in 2019 – it is only responsible for 40% of foreign tourism revenue.

“The rollout of vaccinations will increase consumer trust in travel but the impacts of this on international travel will likely only begin as more countries reach acceptable vaccination thresholds,” notes SA Tourism in its March report.

“At current vaccination rates, this may only be expected towards 2022.”

The return of travellers back into South Africa relies on three primary factors:

  • Country-specific Covid-19 caseloads – measured as weekly new infections per 100,000 people – must be below 50 to be considered “low risk”. While new infections in India, Japan, Australia, and China are within this low-risk threshold, countries in Europe, with the exception of the UK, are enduring a third wave.
  • The estimated timeline for herd immunity – the number of years it will take for a country to vaccinate 75% of its population – also plays a critical role in reopening international travel. The UK and US are currently leading the race to herd immunity among South Africa’s key source markets. It’s estimated that the UK and US could reach herd immunity levels by September 2021.
  • Dropping re-entry requirements - once countries achieve herd immunity and Covid-19 caseloads drop dramatically, SA Tourism predicts that the barriers to re-entry, such as mandatory quarantine periods on return, will fall away.

“The recovery in international tourism recovery will strongly depend on the pandemic’s trajectories, travel restrictions, and vaccination developments,” explains SA Tourism.

“There is thus major risk in expecting that international travel will tangibly return during 2021.”

But even with a staggered recovery of South Africa’s tourism industry anticipated to begin in 2022, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) expects travel will only return to pre-pandemic levels in 2024.

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