Is it safe out there? Should I travel this year or postpone my plans? What is happening in South Africa? Is it safe to travel right now? We've been getting these questions often during the pandemic. Let's unpack the risks and realities.
[Updated 5 November 2021]. Let's face it, 2021 was not a great year for travel, so far. And July 2021 was not a great month for South Africa. It was the story of two waves, both of which affected the confidence of travelers in South Africa as a destination. Firstly, South Africa battled a third wave of coronavirus infections, which peaked in early July. This was driven by the Delta variant, which has almost completely replaced the Beta variant in South Africa. And if that wasn't enough of a challenge, the second week of July saw a wave of riots and looting in certain parts of the country that made international headlines. Unfortunately the news reports scared many people away from booking a trip to South Africa and caused others with existing bookings to question whether they should cancel or postpone their trip, or go ahead with it.
However, as with all waves, they "come to pass". And that's what has happened. The riots are over. The unrest lasted less than a week, and South Africa has been calm again ever since. And the third wave of Covid infections peaked in early July and has consistently been trending down since then, as these waves tend to do. In South Africa, the third wave is over and case numbers are very low. A number of guests decided to travel in spite of the negative headlines, and they had a fantastic time on safari. None of our tours were negatively affected by the third wave of Covid or by the wave of looting and rioting.
Let's take a closer look at each of these two concerns that caused so much fear and uncertainty among potential tourists.
A wave of riots and looting
After failing to obey a court order to appear before a commission of enquiry into "state capture" and corruption, former South African president Jacob Zuma was arrested and detained to serve a 15-month prison sentence. This sparked a wave of unrest among his support base, most of whom are from Kwazulu-Natal province.
During the second week of July, incited by Zuma's supporters, protesters decided to loot shops and malls. The riots lasted for less than a week, but a lot of damage was done to the economy and to South Africa's reputation as a tourist destination. The headlines were not pretty, and gave the impression that the whole country was unstable.
In reality, the unrest was localised and limited to certain areas.
Key tourist regions like Cape Town and the greater Winelands region, the Garden Route, the Kruger National Park and scenic Panorama Route, and other tourist hot spots remained calm and unaffected by the riots.
This is a reality that was often overlooked by the international media. Our safaris carried on as normal, without incident. None of our tours or guests were affected by the riots.
Fortunately, the riots ended after a few days and calm was restored.
Unrest happens all over the world, from time to time. Who can forget the London riots of 2011? Or the BLM protests in many different American cities? Protest action is fairly common in South Africa, but it hardly ever affects tourists. Don't let it stop you from visiting this beautiful country!
Covid in South Africa — the third wave
The other wave we had to deal with in July was of course a COVID-19 wave. South Africa's third distinct wave of infections started in early June and peaked in early July. Our first wave peaked in July 2020 and the second wave in January 2021.
Like in many other countries around the world, the third wave was dominated by the Delta variant. For four weeks, South Africa moved to lockdown alert level 4, but this has since been reduced to level 1 again, with most restrictions lifted.
Daily case numbers have come right down, and active cases are now less than 0.03% of the population. This is much, much lower than the number or percentage of active cases in the US, UK and most of Europe. In terms of new daily cases and active cases per million population, South Africa is currently much safer than the US or UK, two of its key source markets. This makes any remaining travel warnings against South Africa rather questionable. Most countries have lifted their travel warnings against South Africa, but a few inexplicable travel advisories remain in place.
The "South African variant" or Beta variant has all but disappeared and been replaced by the Delta variant, which is now the dominant variant globally.
South Africa's vaccination campaign started off slow but has picked a lot of momentum, and almost 40% of adults have already been vaccinated. Almost all frontline tourism staff have been vaccinated already (including our own guides). Researchers estimate that around 80% of South Africa's population have already had COVID-19 and now have robust natural immunity. The Pfizer vaccine and the Johnson&Johnson vaccine are the two most commonly used vaccines in South Africa.
Most lockdown restrictions have been lifted and life is pretty normal for most people. All shops and restaurants are open, travel is possible, commuter taxis operate at full capacity, all game reserves and national parks are open, borders are open, shopping malls and businesses and even bars and gyms (fitness centres) are open.
The tourism industry has been following world-class, robust health protocols to limit the risk for travellers. These include compulsory masks in public, regular hand sanitizing and disinfection of public surfaces, limits on vehicle capacities, social distancing and avoidance of crowds, and a trend toward outdoor dining whenever possible. Compliance with these protocols is excellent. All arriving international tourists must have a negative PCR test not older than 72 hours, and symptom screening is standard for most indoor venues.
Since 11 November 2020, and throughout our second and third wave of infections, South Africa's international borders remained open and no travel bans were in place. Game reserves and national parks are open and it is possible and safe to go on safari right now. We have hosted many guests during the last few months and enjoyed fantastic sightings. None of our tours were negatively affected by the temporary lockdown restrictions, nor by the localized riots.
An African safari is an ideal vacation while the pandemic is still a concern. What could be better than wide-open spaces, remote wilderness areas with no crowds, plenty of sunshine and fresh air, open vehicle game drives with vaccinated guides, and outside dining!
Should I travel or postpone?
Nobody can make this decision for you, but currently we see no reason to postpone. Travel is never a zero risk activity, even outside of the current pandemic. Our view is that it is safe and possible to travel right now, and many vaccinated travellers have done so and reported feeling perfectly safe. And those who do travel are having a great time, benefiting from low volumes and few other tourists around at the moment.
Is it possible and safe to travel right now?
Yes, it is certainly possible, and generally safe to travel. Are there still some risks if you travel right now? Sure. There are never any guarantees. And the negative PCR tests required for international border crossings can be a costly inconvenience. But on balance, from our own experience and that of our recent guests who travelled with us this year, we are happy to report that it is perfectly possible and safe to travel to South Africa right now, as well as to other destinations throughout Southern and East Africa. Don't let fear and media headlines hold you back!
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[Last update: 15.08.2023] As African countries modify their COVID-19 restrictions and travel requirements in response to the latest World Health Organisation declaration that COVID-19 is no longer a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, combining popular safari destinations in one itinerary is becoming easy. We summarise what you need to know about popular safari destinations in Southern and East Africa.
About the author
Onne Vegter is the managing director of Wild Wings Safaris. He has a deep love for Africa's people, wildlife and natural heritage. Onne has travelled to most of Africa's top safari destinations and his writing is based on years of personal experience in the safari industry. Follow him on Twitter at @OnneVegter.