- Mass cancellations started pouring in as soon as the UK placed SA back on its red list of stricter travel regulations.
- This followed on the SA government announcing a new variant has been identified in the country.
- Tourism and hospitality leaders share their take on the devastating domino effect and whether there is still hope for the industry over the summer season.
Travel agents are "gutted and devastated" by mass cancellations from international tourists in the wake of UK temporarily placing back on its red list of strict travel regulations, according to David Frost, CEO of the Southern African Tourism Services Association (SATSA).
The UK's decision followed an announcement by the SA government that a new variant of the coronavirus has been identified in the country. The UK is SA's biggest tourist source market and it removed SA from its red list only at the beginning of October this year.
The European Union, Japan and Israel have in the meantime moved to place stricter measures against travelling to and from South Africa. It is as yet unclear what approach the US will take.
The blow caused by the announcement of the discovery of the new variant comes at a time when South Africa's tourism and hospitality sector had been hoping for a better peak December holiday season to last year when stricter lockdown regulations were suddenly announced in mid-December - including alcohol sales bans and no access to beaches.
Both Frost and Otto de Vries, CEO of the Association of Southern African Travel Age (ASATA), which represents South African travel agents, are unhappy with the domino effect being created by what they regard as a "knee-jerk reaction" by the UK government. This is devastating for SA's tourism industry just as green shoots were coming through.
"We have members whose guests were leaving for South Africa as we speak. We would have hoped that we live in a world where science would first be allowed to unfold before punishing us with immediate labelling. As soon as the UK put SA back on its red list, our members saw cancellations pouring in," Frost said on Friday.
"There is no hope for a good summer season in SA. We want to engage with the SA government to try and avoid a draconian approach and to rather wait for scientific data on which to base a sensible approach."
For ASATA members, who provide travel services to South Africans going abroad, the current focus is on getting their clients back home amid the challenges created by suspended flights.
"This is devastating for SA's brand as a destination. What if they find the vaccines are effective against the new strain? Travel should be open between SA and the UK for vaccinated people. We would now have to rebuild confidence in SA as a destination," said De Vries.
The Flight Centre Travel Group (FCTG) even cancelled its Black Friday sale to rather assist customers affected by the UK's red list move.
Rosemary Anderson, chairperson of Federated Hospitality Association of Southern Africa (Fedhasa), which represents the hospitality industry of South Africa, went as far as saying the situation has become unsustainable. She points out that SA's tourism and hospitality sector generates 1.5 million direct and indirect jobs.
"We simply cannot have a repeat of December 2020 where restaurants and hospitality businesses bore the brunt of Covid-19 regulations making travel and restaurant patronage unappealing and difficult," she cautioned.
As for the impact on SA's aviation industry, Aaron Munetsi, CEO of the Airlines Association of Southern Africa, says the UK's "hasty decision" is delivering a body-blow to the region's travel and tourism sector.
Airlink, for example, has only had to cancel about 20 tickets by Friday morning and anticipates there will be more cancellations as a result of the UK's announcement and that of any other countries that follow suit.
Flysafair says because its December volumes are usually largely driven by domestic travel, its concern is more about what the local ramifications might be.
A spokesperson for Lufthansa said it is still too early to assess the effects on passenger demand and flight frequencies to southern Africa and the French government announced a suspension of flights for 48 hours in order to assess the situation and take coordinated measures at the European level.
On the hotel front, Sun International says the majority of its bookings for the summer season are from domestic travellers, so they are still preparing for a busy period. The Radisson Hotel Group has, however, had cancellations by international guests and event organisers in both Cape Town and Johannesburg.
Tourism Minister Lindiwe Sisulu will be attending the 24th Session of the General Assembly of the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) in Madrid, Spain, this coming week. She said she will engage with her counterparts and ensure the world that South Africa is open for tourists and all measures are in place ensure their safety.