South Africa travel UK red list
(Getty Images)
  • South Africa has been removed from the United Kingdom's red list, with quarantine free travel for the fully vaccinated reopening on Monday.
  • The Southern Africa Tourism Services Association has waged a six-month-long war against the red list, enlisting the help of a UK-based PR and strategy consultancy firm.
  • The campaign to have South Africa removed from the red list by October came with a R1.5 million price tag.
  • The average UK tourist spends about R30,000 in South Africa, making the cost of the campaign a "no-brainer" according to the associations CEO, David Frost.
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A six-month-long campaign to have South Africa removed from the United Kingdom's red list cost R1.5 million. This money will be recouped by the arrival of 50 British tourists.

South Africa has finally been removed from the UK's restrictive red list, with quarantine-free travel, for those who have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19, reopening on Monday. South Africa was categorised as a red list country since the inception of the UK's traffic light system in May. But travel between the two countries has been tightly restricted since December 2020.

The red list categorisation, determined according to country-specific Covid-19 risks by the UK's Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC) to limit the import of infections and new variants, has had a devastating impact on South Africa's already beleaguered tourism industry.

With travel to the UK limited to returning British or Irish nationals and those with residence rights, movement between the two countries slowed. A mandatory ten-day quarantine in a state-managed hotel with a £2,285 (R46,400) price tag ground travel to a halt.

The UK has traditionally been South Africa's biggest source market for tourists. For every month South Africa has been on the red list, the economy has lost an estimated R790 million in lost tourism spend, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council.

It was the prospect of these fierce financial losses that forced the tourism industry into early action. The Southern Africa Tourism Services Association (Satsa) led the charge. The mission: to get South Africa off the red list as soon as possible, but by October, at the latest, to capitalise on the holiday season.

The lobbying effort began in earnest, with Satsa enlisting the help of Eterna Partners, a UK-based PR and strategy consultancy firm. The campaign aimed to build confidence in South Africa's infection control and vaccination programme, finding bilateral areas of common interest.

But private campaigns to influence foreign policies cost money. A crowdfunding campaign managed to raise R1.5 million in just ten days, with Wesgro, the Western Cape's tourism, trade, and investment promotion agency, being the anchor sponsor.

Other valuable contributions by Cape Town Tourism, Reed Exhibitions, the Enthoven family, and the Oppenheimer family – and many smaller donors – gave the campaign the capital it needed to get the attention of the UK's political powers.

"The average UK spend is around R30,000 [per tourist]… so it was a total no-brainer. It was cheap at the price," Satsa CEO David Frost told Business Insider South Africa during a media briefing on Friday. At this rate, the money pumped into the economy by 50 UK tourists would equal the amount spent on the campaign.

"We knew we had to do something, but we were charging into the unknown. But I think that's what the industry appreciates, is that somebody has gone to bat for you and, as South Africans, we were not going to just sit down and take it. We've got to actually fight back, and this was a worthy and noble cause."

An official petition aimed at the UK government gathered a strong wave of support and the campaign found a powerful voice in the form of Baroness Claire Fox, a member of the UK House of Lords.

Critical to getting South Africa off the red list was combatting a narrative perpetuated by the JBC, that South Africa posed a Beta variant risk. This, despite the Delta variant – also dominant in the UK – being responsible for 96% of South African infections by September.

Professor Shabir Madhi, dean of the faculty of health sciences and professor of vaccinology at the University of the Witwatersrand, and Professor Marc Mendelson, Infectious Diseases Professor at the University of Cape Town, debunked the UK's Beta concerns with accurate data.

Government support was also intensified over the past month. The Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Naledi Pandor, spoke out publicly against South Africa's red listing. Tourism Minister Lindiwe Sisulu addressed the matter with the British Deputy High Commissioner to South Africa. President Cyril Ramaphosa even called UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to voice concerns over the red list.

After all this effort, the UK's Transport Minister Grant Shapps, who, a month earlier, had issued a scathing response to the petition calling for South Africa's removal from the red list, eventually capitulated on Thursday.

In the latest round of sweeping changes to the UK's traffic light system, Shapps confirmed that he'd be "cutting 47 destinations from our red list, including South Africa, with just 7 countries and territories remaining."

The transport minister also confirmed that South Africa's proof of vaccination certificate would be accepted by the UK. This confirmation coincides with the launch of South Africa's digital Covid-19 vaccine certificate which was launched on Friday and has been described as "vitally important" by tourism consultant Gillian Saunders.

"The vaccine certificate is something that we've been pushing government for [for] quite a long time [and] that we need to get ours going," Saunders said during Friday's Satsa briefing.

"And the launch that started this week, with a few teething problems but seems to be going better at the moment, is fantastic and we welcome it."

South Africa's removal from the red list has already seen a surge in travel enquiries to and from the UK, with British citizens scrambling to book flights in time for the festive season

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