The tourism industry has been battered by lockdowns, with the latest statistics showing that the number of foreign visitors dropped by 71% from just over 15.8-million in 2019 to fewer than 5-million people in 2020.
With thousands of job losses, the industry is on its knees. Commentators say the recovery will take years but with mandatory vaccine passports it’s likely to speed up.
Andrew Stark, the managing director of the Flight Centre Travel Group for Middle East and Africa, said tourism is at the centre of the Covid-19 pandemic and this is the first time they have seen signs of recovery after eight months of significant losses.
“We’ve seen increases as countries open up to South Africans, both vaccinated and non-vaccinated. There’s a huge demand for travel.”
He argues that the adoption of vaccination passports will send a message that the country has a vaccination programme and aims to reach herd immunity.
“Our forecast is that we will probably get 67% of the adult population vaccinated by the end of December, which should bode well for both outbound and inbound travel. And that domino effect sends a good message to the international community,” said Stark.
The direct contribution of the tourism sector to the GDP was R130.1‑billion in 2018, which constituted nearly 3% of the direct contribution to GDP, according to Statistics South Africa’s 2020 tourism report.
In 2018, the tourism sector contributed about 4.5% of total employment in South Africa, according to Stats SA.
The department of tourism’s director general, Nkhumeleni Tharage, told parliament last month that the department wanted to introduce a vaccine passport for South Africa that would standardise the verification of vaccinated people.
Grace Harding, the head of The Restaurant Collective and chief executive of Ocean Basket said protecting lives and livelihoods should be at the forefront of decision-making and that the government was just “inventing new rules as they go”.
Harding said that the biggest problem is that the government was working in silos, which was not helpful to the industry. She called for consultation between the tourism industry, the restaurant industry and the government.
“We need our staff to vaccinate because that’s the starting point. You know what’s going to happen one day? I do believe there will be big stickers on windows saying, ‘Come and eat in my restaurant, it’s safe, all my people are vaccinated’,” said Harding.
Harding said there were two issues around vaccinating staff members in the restaurant industry. Some staff were reluctant to get vaccinated for “absurd reasons”, but others lacked education about the registration process and benefits inherent in vaccination.
“We first have to make sure our house is safe before we boss other people around,” she added, which necessitated “tourism, health and home affairs and sitting down and [asking] how do we make our own people safe and how do we make our country safe.”
However, Dawie Roodt, the chief economist at the Efficient Group, said he believes individuals should be allowed to make their own decisions and should not be forced to get vaccinated.
“The moment you put a requirement on somebody to do or not to do something then there will be costs with that. It will be in the form of people standing in a queue to get the passport … it will also be in the form of people refusing to get the passport. And [unvaccinated people may] simply refuse to go buy something at the shop, reducing the turnover of the shop itself,” said Roodt.
He argues that the state of the South African economy cannot afford to introduce another obstacle to trade. Instead, the state needs to educate and encourage people to get vaccinated but leave the decision to the individual.
“I am not so convinced that vaccine passports [will protect livelihoods]. When in doubt, always favour individual freedom. And I have doubts here,” said Roodt.
Rosemary Anderson, the national chairperson of the Federated Hospitality Association of Southern Africa, said she supports the establishment of a uniform standard that will facilitate travel.
Anderson said travel is hampered when there is confusion, lack of confidence and change.
“We believe that vaccine passports will provide much-needed standardisation for our inbound international guests and for South African travellers travelling abroad. We also support vaccination in our sector and are hence fully behind participating in a vaccine passport that is internationally recognised.”
Anderson said the hospitality industry has borne the brunt of regulations aimed at stemming the spread of Covid-19 with each wave and it was not sustainable almost 18 months after they were first introduced.
“If you’re sitting on the fence and care about the livelihoods and jobs supported by our industry, which [represents more than] 1.5-million people, please go and get your vaccination. We only have to look at the UK to see how its economy is progressing positively, despite experiencing the next wave. This is because it has a highly vaccinated population, thus this next Covid-19 wave has not overburdened its healthcare system and it is able to proceed with growing their economy.”
Anathi Madubela is an Adamela Trust business reporter at the M&G