Fears over 'local' coronavirus variant a fresh threat to SA's limping tourism sector

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Sadly, the peak festive season trading was lost for many in the SA tourism industry. (iStock)
Sadly, the peak festive season trading was lost for many in the SA tourism industry. (iStock)
  • President Cyril Ramaphosa's announcement on the easing of lockdown regulations has been welcomed by the tourism industry.
  • SA's tourism industry says it should now fix the country's image as a brand due to a current link with a coronavirus variant.
  • Industry leaders say the whole world has been set back decades in terms of travelling.

The first thing that needs to happen in the South African tourism industry, is for it to address the current narrative overseas about there being "a South African variant" of the coronavirus, according to Tshifhiwa Tshivhengwa, CEO of the Tourism Business Council of SA (TBCSA), which represents the private sector.

He commented on President Cyril Ramaphosa's announcement on Monday evening that confirmed shorter curfew hours and the lifting of the outright ban on alcohol sales.

"It is a Covid-19 variant and we as South Africans are not doing ourselves any favours by saying it is a 'South African' variant. There are many variants. There are people with that variant in the US who never even travelled to SA. So, it is a [Covid-19] variant and not a South African variant," said Tshivhengwa.

"Let us use science to make the right decisions and not to stigmatise South Africa or South Africans who want to travel overseas. These other countries have put a label on us on the basis of a variant; yet, we are not doing anything differently regarding managing the virus than they are doing in their countries."

"I object to imposing restrictions based on this variant. That is not the way to go."
- Tshifhiwa Tshivhengwa

Going back and forth not good for business

As for the latest relaxation of lockdown restrictions, he says South Africa has to learn that keeping going back and forth between various opening and closing regulations impacting the tourism industry is not good for business.

"One of the things we have to learn is, if we keep going back to the same [restrictions] - now being open, now closed, now open, now closed - that is not good for business. We need a different way of dealing with this. It was not the first time there were limitations on the sale of alcohol and movement by people," he says.

"It is almost a year since lockdown started and I hope we can find a better way to deal with regulating the movement of people. The tourism industry has proven we can do things in a safe way. Yes, there are some 'rogue elements' in one or two establishments, perhaps, but it is not the whole industry. We cannot go back again to restrictions like no alcohol sales."

In his view, it is good that Ramaphosa announced the lessening of restrictions in terms of the curfew. It will help restaurants and the hotel sector have longer hours to generate a bit more income. At the same time, opening beaches, rivers and dams goes a long way to get people to travel to bodies of water and enjoy these safely by following protocols.

"To avoid the third wave, we must make people understand that just because some vaccines have arrived, it does not mean the pandemic is over. The government must make people aware that it may be around for the next year, 18 months or even two years," he said.

As matter of urgency, he would like government to provide clarity on how it plans to deal with international visitors who have already been vaccinated.

"There are people who will soon be ready to travel and, if they are vaccinated, government should be clear if they would then still need to show a negative Covid-19 test or not," he says.

Low tourism environment

For Sisa Ntshona, CEO of SA Tourism, the easing of regulations is a welcome step in the context of the current low tourism environment.

"In these circumstances, any form of easing helps the different value chains of tourism to operate. More importantly, it shows us that if the numbers of infections go up, restrictions will go up and vice versa, so we have to keep a close eye on the numbers as it will dictate what will happen," says Ntshona.

"Making lockdown restrictions tighter is a blunt instrument and the only one available, but once a vaccine is rolled out and SA achieves herd immunity, then the country will be less reliant on the lockdown and more on the impact of the vaccine."  

Any form of easing up and enabling the tourism industry to trade is welcome, but it is not enough, he cautions. The whole world was set back decades in terms of travelling.

Protecting the SA brand

"We have to protect our country brand. We are not expecting international numbers to shoot up, but we will work on SA as a brand this year so that when the vaccine has created herd immunity in the world, we can be ready to welcome visitors back."
- Sisa Ntshona

"SA as a brand is a country of many things, of something for people of all ages and budgets, - whether you are an adrenalin junkie, a nature or wildlife lover nature, wildlife, beaches, there is something for everybody. We have to communicate with the world that we should not be identified with a coronavirus variant, it was not home-brewed in the country."

Hospitality industry body Fedhasa has welcomed Ramaphosa's announcement of shorter curfew hours and the lifting of the outright ban on alcohol sales. Fedhasa said this will be bringing great relief to a hospitality sector which has borne the brunt of heightened restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of Covid-19. 

Easing restrictions paves the way for hospitality businesses to be able to operate in a financially viable environment, says Rosemary Anderson, Fedhasa national chairperson.  

Similarly, the further announcement of the reopening of beaches bodes well for the accommodation and restaurant sectors in coastal areas, in her view. 

Peak season lost

"Sadly, the peak festive season trading was lost for many; however, we remain hopeful that South Africans will support their hospitality sector, knowing how many people depend on it for their livelihoods. We trust that they will do so responsibly so that their patronage is the lifeline many hospitality companies have been holding desperately on for," says Anderson.  

While the restrictions have been eased, she emphasises that the hospitality sector continues to operate with robust health and hygiene protocols.

In the view of Raeford Liebenberg, manager at Silvermoon, a Galix company, now - more than ever - it's critical for businesses that are dependent on tourism and travel to differentiate themselves based on customer experience, because the biggest challenge with the reopening of the hospitality and travel industry has been attracting clientele.

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