South Africa travel bans
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  • Travel to and from South Africa has been severely disrupted by restrictions imposed by more than 70 countries in the wake of the Omicron variant's discovery.
  • South Africa's already embattled tourism industry was betting on a busy summer season to recoup losses incurred during a year of restricted travel.
  • But following Omicron's detection, more than R1 billion worth of bookings have been cancelled.
  • And holidaymakers are likely to rethink travel to South Africa once restrictions are lifted.
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International travel bans imposed on South Africa following the discovery of a new Covid-19 variant have decimated the tourism sector's hopes of a busy summer season. Psychological effects of this swift global response are likely to dissuade holidaymakers for much longer.

South Africa's reeling tourism sector, which supported close to 800,000 jobs and contributed more than R130 billion to the country's economy prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, had hoped to recoup some losses between December and March.

This optimism followed the relaxation of travel restrictions in October. The United Kingdom, which has traditionally served as the country's main source market for tourists, removed South Africa from its restrictive red list following months of hard lobbying. Much of Europe and North America had also dropped prohibitive quarantine measures.

Travel queries and bookings flooded in. Early estimates suggested that some 300,000 British passport holders were likely to spend summer in South Africa. Add in heightened interest from other key markets, like Germany and the United States – which supplied more than 65,000 visitors in December 2019 – and South Africa's tourism prospects looked good.

But this all changed on Thursday 25 November. On that day, South Africa's Department of Health and scientists from the Network for Genomic Surveillance revealed that a new, highly mutated Covid-19 variant, Omicron, had been detected in Gauteng.

A flurry of bans imposed on travellers from South Africa followed. The UK re-added South Africa and neighbouring countries to its red list, requiring all returning residents to quarantine in a government-run hotel. The floodgates opened and by Monday, within 72 hours of the Omicron announcement, nearly 40 countries had imposed restrictions on travellers from South Africa.

The travel bans were blasted by scientists and President Cyril Ramaphosa as unjustified, discriminatory, and irrational.

It was argued that South Africa was being punished for its superior genomic surveillance measures and that Omicron had already begun to spread in other parts of the world, undetected. This turned out to be likely.

But the "knee-jerk" reaction to impose immediate travel bans on South Africa led to more than R1 billion worth of summer holiday bookings being cancelled within 48 hours. The latest figure is likely to be much higher. By Friday, the number of countries with restrictions on South African travellers had grown to more than 70. Omicron has been detected in 30 countries, many of which have imposed bans on South African travellers.

"The bookings cancelled through the overseas wholesale [and] retail channel are largely lost for good as risk mitigation demands these players to wait for stability," Martin Wiest, the CEO of Tourvest Destination Management, told Business Insider South Africa.

"Most of our partners have cancelled everything to the end of January/February with no new bookings being taken currently not only leading to immediate loss of income, but also a delayed recovery period."

Wiest believes that the newly imposed travel bans have pushed the recovery of South Africa's tourism sector back by between three to six months.

And while the immediate loss of income is disastrous for an industry which was already hanging by a thread and relying on the summer season to claw back losses, the international reaction to the discovery of a new variant will likely have long-lasting psychological effects.

Travel bans imposed on South Africa as a result of scientists' detection of Omicron come after a similar discovery was made almost a year ago. In December 2020, South African scientists detected a variant which would come to be known as Beta.

That discovery led to South African travellers becoming the most restricted in the world in just four months. It kept the country on the UK's red list for 10 months, costing the South African economy around R8 billion in lost tourism spend, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council.

The fear, for South Africa's tourism industry, is that the response to Omicron creates further anxiety among future holidaymakers. These travellers will likely think twice about coming to South Africa, fearing that the detection of a new variant could immediately result in costly cancellations and disruptions.

"We've seen 70% of our December files either cancel or postpone further into 2022," Craig Smith, the managing director of New Frontiers, told Business Insider South Africa.

"Even if restrictions were lifted this week, it is highly unlikely that these bookings would be reinstated. I think the market has taken a huge knock in confidence. The arbitrary nature of restrictions, the immediacy with which these can happen, and the stress and financial cost associated with them will have a significant impact on the travel world, not just to Southern Africa."

Some tourism sector stakeholders are optimistic about the international travel restrictions being reversed before the end of the year, when it's hoped that data will show that Omicron is no more dangerous than the Delta variant.

"Right now, we are only postponing clients for the next two weeks, till 16 December, our Xmas and New year guests are all waiting to see if there is a relaxation in travel restrictions," David Ryan, the founder and CEO of Rhino Africa Safaris, told Business Insider SA.

"We are in fact advising guests that if they cancel, and the travel restrictions change, the likelihood of them getting the availability again is slim, particularity in the safari lodges, which are fast filling up with South Africans who have had their outbound travel cancelled."

But Ryan also believes that the recently imposed restrictions will have long-lasting effects in the minds of holidaymakers, particularly those with future plans of visiting South Africa.

"It is the psychological impact that is most concerning to us, but we won't see the consequence of this immediately. The nature of inbound travel to Southern Africa is that it is a long-haul destination that is often a 'once-in-a-lifetime' trip. As such they contain lots of planning and often have long lead times," said Ryan.

"Overlay that with Africa's seasonality, and it's easy to understand that inbound travel to Southern Africa often has a lead time of between three and nine months. What the world just showed us is that governments can change rules as and when they like, and worse on short notice. The risk of being caught in a long-haul destination for many guests causes great anxiety."

"We anticipate this will have a significant blow to our recovery, because uncertainty always does."

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