- China reopened its borders earlier in January after years of strict lockdowns during the pandemic.
- SA, which did not impose mandatory Covid-19 testing for Chinese tourists, is on a list of countries approved by the Chinese government for group travel from China.
- Countries like the US, UK, India, Japan, and France, which decided to impose mandatory Covid-19 testing for Chinese travellers, are noticeably absent from the group travel list.
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South Africa's decision to not impose Covid-19 tests on Chinese tourists is one of the key reasons why it is one of the first countries to which the Chinese government has approved group travel.
China reopened its borders earlier in January after years of strict lockdowns during the pandemic. Individual travellers with the necessary permission could start travelling outside the country again.
Last week, the Chinese government released a list of 20 countries to which it will allow group travel as of 6 February. Group travel is only permitted via travel agencies accredited by the Chinese government.
South Africa is on this list, which, apart from eight Asian countries, includes Russia, the UAE, Switzerland, Egypt, and Kenya.
Countries like the US, UK, India, Japan, and France, which decided to impose mandatory Covid-19 testing for Chinese travellers, are not on the list. The Chinese government has criticised mandatory Covid-19 testing, claiming such measures lack a scientific basis.
Last week, the Chinese embassy in SA tweeted, "glad to hear that #SouthAfrica will be one of the first countries to receive Chinese tourists organised by Chinese travel agencies and online travel companies starting from 6 February 2023".
Charles Wang, product and marketing manager of Walk Through Africa Tours, based in Johannesburg, says not imposing mandatory Covid-19 testing will help to bring more Chinese tourists to SA.
For example, when South Korea announced stringent rules regarding Covid-19 control of Chinese tourists, there was a noticeable decline in numbers.
Stats from online travel agency platforms in China has shown a five times increase in searches on SA and that the popularity of SA has increased by 330%, according to Wang.
"It is more than exciting to know that China has selected SA among the first countries where agency-organised traveling will be allowed again. We feel it is an unparalleled opportunity for the SA tourism industry," says Wang.
"Ease of travel is important. In addition, [SA being on the list of 20] is mutual recognition of efforts being put into coping with Covid-19 by both countries."
China had the world's largest outbound tourism market before the pandemic. In 2019, outbound Chinese tourists peaked at nearly 155 million. According to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), Chinese visitors worldwide contributed US$ 253 billion to the global economy in 2019. South Africa only attracted just more than 93 000 Chinese travellers in 2019.
"It is important to understand that the tourism industry serves not only a financial benefit but also brings opportunities from trade and commerce. It is utterly important in understanding the growth-driven mechanism of tourism in building, facilitating, and boosting the trade activities between the two countries," says Wang.
Johan Groenewald, managing director of Royal African Discoveries, which specialises in bringing tourists from Asia to SA, says not requiring negative Covid-19 tests from Chinese tourists will likely contribute to SA being chosen as a travel destination. At the same time, SA should not expect a sudden influx of "hordes of Chinese tourists," in his view.
"There are no direct flights to SA from China. Singapore Airlines is the only Asian airline flying into SA currently. Middle Eastern airlines plan to start flying to China again, which will be an indirect route for Chinese travellers to use to SA. Tickets to SA as long haul destination are expensive on top of that," explains Groenewald.
Nevertheless, SA's tourism market can benefit from the pent-up demand created among Chinese tourists during their years of lockdown.
During the pandemic, because no Chinese tourists were coming to SA due to their lockdown, some travel agencies focusing on the Chinese market had to close their doors. Many Chinese tourists do not speak English and use Mandarin-speaking tour guides. Many of these tour guides have either returned to China or found alternative work during the pandemic. The infrastructure able to cater to Chinese tourists in SA, therefore, needs to be re-established, according to Groenewald.
An SA travel agent who deals with the Chinese market but wants to remain anonymous explains that travel from China is highly regulated, especially for the average citizen. That is why the Chinese government favours packaged tour groups travelling together and under the guidance of endorsed travel agencies.
In his view, SA is one of the first countries to which the Chinese government has approved group travel to restart because SA did not impose mandatory Covid-19 testing or other travel restrictions for Chinese tourists.
Minister of Tourism Lindiwe Sisulu told News24 that China and the rest of Asia are tourism target markets for SA.
"We are working very hard to attract tourists from that part of the world. However, we will follow all advice from our Departments of Health and Home Affairs regarding protocols to follow when tourists enter SA. Our country is open for business and tourists," said Sisulu.
SA's Department of Health announced earlier that because the dominant Covid-19 variant of concern in China and the world remains Omicron, and it believes immunity in SA from vaccination and natural immunity is still strong, it puts SA at less risk. The department has not seen any changes in rates of Covid-19 infection, hospital admission, and deaths.
"We have consulted the Ministerial Advisory Committees (MACs) and World Health Organisation (WHO), and in both cases, the advice has been that there is no need to impose travel restrictions on any country, including China," the department stated.