Tourism: South Africa mulls reopening regional borders amidst growing call from industry stakeholders

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South Africa is considering fast tracking the reopening of its regional borders, as stakeholders in the tourism industry are mounting pressure on government to open the country’s borders, arguing that there is no evidence of a second wave of COVID-19 coming.

On Friday morning (Sept 4, 2020), the South African Minister of Tourism, Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane shared the prospect of a regional travel bubble at a panel discussion at the Time Square Sun Studios in Pretoria on Friday morning.

“We are monitoring the risk of the virus spread, and we are satisfied with the current downward trend of new infections. If sustained, we can fast-track the reopening regional borders soon,” she said.

In this way, through regional coordination with our regional partners, we could create a regional travel bubble.

Africa land markets form the bedrock of tourism in South Africa.

This region alone accounts for 71 percent of international arrivals. This would give a further boost to the recovery efforts of the sector,” she added.

Kubayi-Ngubane believes that regional travel will offer many benefits.

“The rise in domestic tourism together with regional travel will help us build confidence for global travellers so that when we eventually open all our borders, we will be able to attract travellers to our safe destination,” she said.

She did emphasise the importance of domestic travel on assisting the tourism industry following months of national lockdown due to the coronavirus.

“In the meantime, my message to South Africans is: let’s all get out there and explore our country and get to know the beautiful country that is South Africa. Let us do so safely.

“Let’s protect ourselves, let’s wear masks, let’s wash our hands and let’s continue to practice social distancing,” she said.

Meanwhile, as stakeholders in the tourism industry argue that there is no real evidence of a second wave of COVID-19 coming, and that international borders should be opened as soon as possible, the Tourism department is pushing domestic travel before it believes international travel can resume.

Speaking at a panel discussion hosted by the National Press Club (NPC) at the Maslow, Time Square, yesterday, Tourism Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane emphasised that tourist attractions needed segmented marketing to attract domestic travel.

The event marked the start of Tourism Month, and came as the country moved to level 2 of lockdown which allows for inter-provincial leisure travel but no in or outbound movement across borders.

She urged the local tourist industry to look into using segmented marketing (identifying and targeting a market segment such as family travel), and creating attractive packages and specials to make up for their losses suffered because of lockdown.

She said despite the economic hardships South Africans faced, they were keen to get out of their homes, and would travel if their needs were provided for. She said government made up a large contingent of workers so that was just one of the sectors of people to target to explore their own country.

“It’s a huge market,” she said, and “specials” and affordable packages were a driver of generating demand to travel domestically, especially in school holidays.

With the minister at a virtual event in the Time Square conference centre, was a panel of industry members, with the chief operations officer hospitality of Sun International, Graham Wood; Professor Alex van den Heever the chair of Social Security Systems Administration and Management Studies at Wits; Elmarie Slabbert, a tourism professor at North-West University (NWU), and Unathi Henama of the Tourism department at the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT).

Van den Heever kicked off the discussion with the challenge that international travel was long overdue because there was no evidence that suggested a resurgence of the pandemic so the risk for visitors was low.

He said that a large part of the risk-adjusted lockdown decisions had been based on modelling which had proved to be wrong.

“The modelling that was performed showed that there would be a peak in September. And what we are seeing in the actual data is that the models were completely wrong (as the virus peaked in SA in July).

They were also wrong in the number of deaths that they were projecting,” he said.

He dismissed the notion of a second wave of the pandemic as had been experienced elsewhere, saying there was no evidence of this in South Africa and there was virtually no risk, and urged opening up with health protocols in place.

“Second waves occurred in countries like New Zealand and South Korea where they suppressed the epidemic with a very large susceptible population. They stop it through prevention. We didn’t stop through prevention,” he said.

But Kubayi-Ngubane argued that it was because of the government’s preventive measures that the worst case scenario didn’t come to light.

Wood rallied for the reopening of international borders “tomorrow”, saying as much as local tourists brought in business, it was international travellers with their currency and incremental spend that brought in high profits.

He said September into the new years was a peak time for travelling, and the industry needed to salvage what they could.

He said countries like Spain and France implemented 14-day quarantines for returning travellers for precautionary measures, and that was likely to happen for South Africa.

Henema and Slabbert both referred to the cost of travel for South Africans giving the example of a package holiday overseas which could be more affordable than a local trip.

Kubayi-Ngubane said it was not only South Africa that had closed its borders but also the country’s source markets, and said for international travel the country had to be seen as low-risk.

She said non-compliance by some citizens also depicted a negative outlook on South Africa to foreign countries, hence SA was still considered a high-risk country, and she urged better compliance.

“In a report I received about our sector, it said we are 80% non-compliant.”

She admitted to the panel that government also found itself with contradictory views from scientists and had to listen to all sides and take things one step at a time, which was why regional borders would open before international travel could resume.


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