The tourism industry in South Africa will haemorrhage about R790-million for each month that the UK keeps the country on its red list of those countries considered a high risk for Covid-19 and which it has warned its citizens against travelling to.
Despite Pretoria bristling over “unwarranted exclusion”, South Africa is opting for diplomacy and is hoping a team of scientists and advisers will persuade London to remove the country from the list.
Sign up for our free daily elections email
This is where we’d usually stop you and ask you to pay to read this story, but this week M&G is free so that everyone can access the information they need in the run up to the municipal elections on 1 November. Find out more here.
The UK regulations say that if anyone has been in a country on the red list, they will only be allowed to enter the UK if they are a British or Irish citizen or have residence rights.
Those coming to the UK from red list countries must take a Covid-19 test three days before they travel, complete a passenger locator form 48 hours before arriving and, on landing, quarantine in a managed hotel and have two Covid-19 tests, all at their own cost.
This is likely to inhibit British citizens from travelling to South Africa, which will harm the tourism industry. More than 430 000 British tourists visited South Africa in 2019, but this dropped by a whopping 97% in 2020.
The red list has caused untold damage to the tourism sector, said Steven Gruzd, the head of the African governance and diplomacy programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs.
“It is a most unfortunate development and is already contributing to tensions between the two states,” he said.
Tourism Minister Lindiwe Sisulu told a travel and tourism summit in Johannesburg this week that she had raised the issue with the British deputy high commissioner to South Africa and there had been an agreement to bring together scientists and advisers from both countries to further research the Beta variant believed to be behind the UK’s decision to keep South Africa on the red list.
“They are confusing the variant with South Africa because it was first detected here. But it does not mean it is a South African variant,” Sisulu said.
International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor said her department would intensify efforts to have South Africa removed from the list and was “optimistic that the … UK will finally realise that their decision is not harming just the tourism industry but other businesses from both countries”.
Responding to a Twitter post by an aviation analyst who noted that people who had been vaccinated in Africa, South America, the United Arab Emirates, India, Turkey, Jordan, Thailand and Russia were considered “unvaccinated” by the UK, the international relations department spokesman, Clayson Monyela, said nations affected by this “inexplicable decision” should return the favour. “If all reciprocated, the UK would be forced to reverse their decision. It’s simply mind boggling.”
The British high commission said it recognises the positive developments in South Africa regarding its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, including a drop in the number of cases, but added that “we remain concerned about the continued presence [of] Beta given its potential ability to circumvent vaccines”.
The National Institute for Communicable Diseases said the Beta variant was dominant in South Africa in May but, since June, the Delta variant numbers had increased.
Numerous nations have closed their borders to arrivals from countries seen to be high risk. People travelling from South Africa will probably not be able to enter up to 77 countries unless they are returning citizens and residents, according to data on Scotland-based metasearch engine and travel agency Skyscanner.
A report from the department of tourism said tourist arrivals in South Africa plunged by 84.1% from January to March compared to the same period in 2020, just before the pandemic was detected in the country. There were 2 429 177 arrivals in the three months in 2020 and only 386 937 arrivals in the 2021 period.
Critics have questioned the UK’s decision to keep South Africa on the red list despite its Covid-19 vaccine roll-out. At least 11.71-million adults had been vaccinated as of 20 September this year, bringing the percentage of vaccinated people to 29.43%.
“I think that this decision has been made despite the vaccination programme, which was admittedly very slow to start with,” Gruzd said.
The decision will have a profound negative effect on the tourism sector in the festive season, which is usually the peak season for European tourists drawn to South Africa’s summer warmth.
“One statistic estimates that tourism has lost R790-million for every month that South Africa has been on the red list,” Gruzd said.
Political analyst Levy Ndou says the fallout is unlikely to damage diplomatic relations between the UK and South Africa, noting that the latter had the highest national tally of Covid-19 cases in Africa.
“Given our situation in South Africa when compared to other countries on the continent, countries will be cautious and this does not mean that there is favouritism,” he said.
A petition to have South Africa removed from the red list has about 36 000 signatures. At least 100 000 signatures are required before the matter can be debated in the UK parliament. “It [the petition] might be a good strategy to force the government to change its decisions,” said Ndou.