South Africa travel UK red list
(Getty Images)
  • The United Kingdom was the first country to impose swift and strict bans on South African travellers in the wake of the Omicron variant’s discovery.
  • It has now scrapped its restrictive red list, dropping its mandatory hotel quarantine requirements which crippled South Africa’s peak tourist season.
  • Dozens of countries followed the UK’s lead in imposing travel bans on South Africa.
  • Now, tourism groups are urging these countries to act with the same urgency in lifting these bans as they did in imposing them.
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The United Kingdom (UK) has removed South Africa from its restrictive red list, effectively reopening movement between the two countries with no quarantine requirements for fully vaccinated travellers.

The UK scrapped its red list, for the second time this year, on Wednesday. For the past three weeks, only British or Irish nationals, or travellers with residence rights, were allowed to return to the UK. A mandatory 10-day quarantine in a state-managed hotel – at a cost of £2,285 (around R50,000) – awaited these travellers upon their arrival.

It’s the same categorisation that tourism organisations in South Africa fought hard against for much of the year. The UK first relented in October, removing South Africa from its red list, just in time for the summer season which promised a flood of British holidaymakers. But the optimism was short-lived.

South Africa would spend less than two months off the UK’s red list. At the end of November, mere hours after scientists for South Africa’s Network for Genomic Surveillance detected a new coronavirus variant – which would come to be known as Omicron – the UK reinstituted its ban and suspended all direct flights between the two countries.

Around R1 billion worth of holiday bookings were cancelled within 48 hours of South Africa’s red listing and the psychological impact on would-be travellers caused incalculable damage to the country’s embattled tourism industry.

“We are still counting the short-, medium- and long-term collateral damage that the second red listing caused to many companies that depend heavily on inbound international tourism,” said Rosemary Anderson, national chair of the Federated Hospitality Association of South Africa (Fedhasa), in reaction to the UK scrapping its red list.

Anderson added that the R1 billion lost in the immediate aftermath of the travel ban “is a drop in the ocean compared to what has been lost over the past three weeks.”

The UK’s swift ban on South African travellers triggered a domino effect. Countries like Germany, France, Singapore, and the United States (US) quickly followed suit. By the time the UK announced its change of heart, almost 70 countries had imposed tougher restrictions on travellers who had spent time in South Africa, according to Flight Centre.

“The easing of the travel ban and the lifting of the quarantine requirements is fantastic news for South African business travellers for whom the costly quarantine was a major deterrent,” said Euan McNeil, the managing director of Flight Centre Travel Group South Africa.

“This significant decision by the UK government hopefully signals an end to the ad hoc and arbitrary introductions of travel bans in the future. We are confident other destinations will follow suit and open to South Africa once more.”

And although UK travellers account for the bulk of South Africa’s international arrivals during the pre-pandemic holiday season, between December and January, the combined total number of visitors from Germany, the US, France, and the Netherlands provide almost double the amount of traffic. These countries still have restrictions on travel from South Africa.

“When the UK initially red listed South Africa following the discovery of the Omicron variant in November, countries around the world immediately followed suit and issued travel bans on our country. Within the space of a couple of hours, South Africans were banned from travelling to dozens of countries around the world,” said Otto de Vries, CEO of the Association of Southern African Travel Agents (Asata).

“We urge that these countries react with the same swiftness and urgency now by also lifting their travel bans and restrictions on South Africa with immediate effect.”

De Vries added that, should these remaining bans be lifted with the same urgency as they were implemented following the UK’s lead, he remained hopeful that at least some of South Africa’s summer holiday season could be saved.

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