News analysis

Air travel
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  • South Africa combined the reopening of borders with a blunt decree: every visitor and returning resident shall show a negative PCR test for the coronavirus before entering.
  • A little over a week later, that rule has been relaxed three times – and is now effectively void.
  • But while the testing regime is important, tourism and aviation bodies say, it is South Africa's red list that will make or break their industries.
  • And on that, government has shown no willingness to budge yet, despite fierce lobbying.
  • For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.


When South Africa reopened its borders at the beginning of October, it was with a simple, universal rule: everyone crossing its borders, be they returning residents, tourists (from allowed countries), visiting businesspeople (allowed from anywhere), and air crew, could have to come bearing a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, no more than three days old, showing they did not have the coronavirus.

In other respects there would be different rules for different groups. Families would face quarantine if any member showed symptoms, but not non-related people travelling together. Tourists from elsewhere in Africa would always be welcome, but for leisure travellers from elsewhere in the world, access would be conditional on the ferocity of the Covid-19 pandemic in their home countries. Cruise ships were entirely banned, while long-haul flights could serve food aboard.

On pre-travel testing, though, there was to be no differentiated treatment.

A little over a week later, that rules has been relaxed three times, first for two distinct groups, then globally.

First, businesspeople travelling into and out of SA regularly from any of the 15 other Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries were told they need only be tested once, and could then travel freely on the basis of that test for two weeks after.

Next airlines were told that their crew may enter SA without showing a test result, as long as they are confined to their hotels until they fly out again. 

Then, on Thursday, the department of home affairs said it would offer rapid and cheap antigen testing at borders for those who arrive without a PCR test – though the government would still rather travellers arrive with a "gold standard" PCR test.

The rapid back-tracking on once-firm rule has heartened parts of the airline and tourism sectors that had been particularly hard hit by the testing requirements, such as those dealing with customers flying from countries, often elsewhere in Africa, that simply can not provide PCR testing within less than 72 hours.

But it has made no difference in the one area where most of the lobbying around tourism rules has been concentrated: South Africa's red list.

The mere existence of a list of countries from which tourists are banned will deter some visitors from coming to SA, some say, because of long-term plans become more dubious.

Others argue that SA's red list appears to be arbitrary, which comes with its own set of trouble, that updating it every two weeks as planned is either too fast or too slow, and that in banning many of SA's major sources of tourists, it shows itself to be too restrictive. 

Various tourism and aviation bodies say the simple alternative is to aggressively screen – and test – arriving passengers on planes, regardless of their origin.

Despite reports of an attentive audience in various government departments for such arguments, there has been no sign of efforts to reconsider either the red-list concept or the way it is constituted. It is simply too dangerous to allow tourists from high-risk countries in South Africa, the government appears to believe, even though businesspeople, diplomats, sportspeople, and others from those same countries can safely be allowed in.

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