South Africa UK red list travel
(Getty Images)
  • South Africa's removal from the United Kingdom's red list is good news for the embattled tourism industry.
  • It's taken six months for the United Kingdom to be persuaded to drop South Africa from its red list prohibiting travel, while free movement between the two countries has been disrupted for far longer.
  • Much of the fight to reopen travel was left to private players in South Africa's tourism industry.
  • Ministers and President Cyril Ramaphosa only really got vocal last month.
  • If they'd spoken up sooner and louder, it would've "made a massive difference" according to the Southern Africa Tourism Services Association.
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The South African government played an important role in getting the country removed from the United Kingdom's red list, but should've stepped up earlier, according to the tourism association which spearheaded the fight for free travel.

Travel between the UK and South Africa will reopen on Monday after six months of red list restrictions. Mandatory quarantine requirements for returning British or Irish nationals and those with residence rights halted the supply of South Africa's most valuable tourists, costing the economy billions of rands.

But the fight to have South Africa removed from the red list was largely left to the private sector. The Southern Africa Tourism Services Association (Satsa) led from the front, launching a campaign to combat the panic over the country's Covid-19 risks. This included hiring a UK-based PR firm and crowdfunding R1.5 million.

Top of Satsa's agenda was to open the channels of communication with those wielding political and economic pull in the UK. Changing the alarmist international narrative around South Africa's infection rates, vaccination programme, and Beta variant.

The association also managed to gain support from Ben Bradshaw MP, Lord Oates and Baroness Chalker – a much-needed voice in the UK's House of Commons and House of Lords – while partnering with top scientists to provide accurate data on South Africa's actual Covid-19 risks.

South Africa's economy is estimated to have lost around R790 million for every month it stayed on the red list, starved of UK tourist spend. The financial losses have been severe but millions of rands could've flowed back into the economy if South Africa's government had spoken up sooner.

Satsa began actively lobbying, together with its PR partner in the UK, for South Africa's removal from the red list at the inception of the controversial traffic light system in May.

Only after consecutive dismissals of Satsa's appeal and South Africa's continued stay on the red list, despite the science saying otherwise, did various arms of government actively join the lobbying efforts.

International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) Minister Naledi Pandor announced in early-September that plans were "being finalised for government to significantly increase its lobbying efforts to ensure that South Africa is removed from the UK's red list."

Dirco previously faced criticism for its alleged failure to engage with the German government when it imposed harsh travel restrictions on South Africans.

Later in September, Tourism Minister Lindiwe Sisulu said she had addressed the red list issue with the British Deputy High Commissioner to South Africa.

During his recent announcement on South Africa's move to a lighter level of lockdown, President Cyril Ramaphosa confirmed that he had spoken to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson about the continued travel ban.

"We're grateful that we're off [the UK's red list] and certainly the intervention of senior ministers and the president in this regard was seminal in shifting the UK's decision," Satsa CEO, David Frost told Business Insider South Africa on Friday while unpacking the welcomed removal from the red list.

"The fact that they were able to, at very short notice, be in the meeting of scientists last week was testament to that. But, clearly, it would've, I think, made a massive difference if we had a proper intervention at the highest levels earlier."

Frost regards this incident as just one example of the widespread disconnect between the tourism industry and government.

"We generally still feel very much like the step-child, like 'there's the tourism industry, it's something on the side', and what we would like to see is that tourism is taken a lot more seriously by government," said Frost.

"You need to have technical discussions in a proper, structured engagement. And if we had that, we'd talk to each other regularly and we'd strategise and we'd grapple with problems at inception and then execute it jointly, together."

"I think that would put us in a far better position and I think if we had been doing that, we could've shifted this process earlier."

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