South African Covid variant
(Getty Images)
  • Describing the 501Y.V2 Covid-19 variant as the “South African strain” is keeping international visitors out of the country, according to the government.
  • Brand SA and South African Tourism have been ordered to conduct a “robust global PR exercise” to change the narrative and focus, instead, on the country’s sharp genomic surveillance programme.
  • But the challenge lies in convincing international media.
  • SA tourism hubs in 14 countries are lobbying for responsible reporting.
  • For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

The international narrative which describes the 501Y.V2 Covid-19 variant as the “South African strain” has damaged tourism at a time when the travel industry can least afford it. Government has now tasked two South African agencies with conducting a “robust global PR exercise” to correct perceptions around the variant and allay fears of foreign visitors.

South Africa’s tourism industry, which contributed 1.5 million jobs and R425.8 billion to the economy in 2018, accounting for 8.6% of the total GDP, is largely reliant on international visitors. The global pandemic’s impact on travel, with blanket border closures and strict quarantine measures dissuading holidaymakers, has been severe.

Businesses in the tourism sector reported that revenue had more than halved, even with domestic travel allowed under the lighter levels of lockdown. Almost a third of these businesses have been forced to closed, according to a report by the Tourism Business Council of South Africa (TBCSA).

While international travel restrictions were entirely responsible for tourism’s downturn in 2020, persistent health concerns continue to subdue visitors. The global vaccination drive is likely to allay these fears and, in time, support a surge in international travel.

But for South Africa’s beleaguered tourism industry, the discovery of a new Covid-19 variant in the Eastern Cape – which was meant to be a testament to astute genomic surveillance conducted by local researchers – has damaged the country’s appeal. The 501Y.V2 variant, which is 50% more infectious than the original Covid-19 strain and more elusive to some vaccines, is erroneously referred to as the “South African variant”.

“The discovery of the new variant known as 501Y.V2 in the country might cause negative publicity for South Africa as a tourism destination,” cautioned Dr Sibusiso Khuzwayo in a presentation to Parliament’s portfolio committee on tourism.

Two agencies – Brand SA and South African Tourism (SAT) – have been instructed by Parliament to lead a global campaign to effectively rebrand the new variant according to its scientific name, separating 501Y.V2 from its persistent South African connotation.

“The inaccurate and irresponsible naming of the Covid 501Y.V2 strain as the ‘South African strain’ is detrimental to not only our country brand, but our tourism brand as well,” says Nonku Khumalo of SAT.

“This strain of Covid-19 has been identified in 31 other countries, but it was South Africa who had the advanced scientific surveillance to pronounce it. This country has done commendable work in managing the pandemic, and this narrative of this variant detracts from that work.”

Since the discovery of 501Y.V2, dozens of countries have implemented stern travel restrictions on visitors who have travelled to or from South Africa. In most cases, this means that holidaymakers who visit South Africa will need to endure weeks of quarantine upon returning to their country of origin.

“Over the past few months, we have seen a growing list of countries which have blacklisted South Africa,” says Khumalo.

“For example, the Australian cricket tour to South Africa was postponed. This is all while our daily infection numbers are decreasing. This can only be attributed to the narrative around this so-called South African variant.”

Brand SA has echoed Khumalo’s sentiments but adds that the mission to change the narrative will require a concerted effort by all stakeholders, including international media organisations.

“We will be collaborating with various stakeholders in driving awareness on the image and reputation of the Nation Brand domestically and internationally,” explains Brand SA’s Chief Marketing Officer, Thoko Modise.

The terminological issues, or the naming of the ‘South African’ variant, cannot be solved overnight, and will require consistent engagement through a multi-sector approach.”

This multi-sector approach includes enlisting a host of “brand ambassadors” across 14 international hubs operated by SAT. The marketing campaign, through digital and online channels, will include education around the 501Y.V2 variant and shift focus back to South Africa’s genomic surveillance efforts.

“In these countries we have what we call ‘Hubs’ and these consist of teams on the ground,” says Khumalo of the ambassadors deployed to countries like the United States (US) and the United Kingdom (UK), which serve as key drivers to South Africa’s tourism sector.

“Our country teams are in constant communication with the industry in the respective countries, to ensure that we are continuously communicating the correct information and facts.”

Brand SA has called on South Africans to play their part in correcting the “South African variant” reference by correcting others and holding the media to account.

“The variant naming convention can easily be corrected when all South African stakeholders, including media, the State, and private sector operators in the tourism industry utilise their resources and platforms to positively position South Africa,” explains Modise.

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