A number of articles and blog posts have been doing the rounds since around mid-May that South Africa might only open its borders to international tourists from February 2021 onwards. This fake news has been widely circulated in the media, extending the damage already done to the tourism industry by the COVID-19 pandemic. Where did these articles originate from? If that information is not accurate, when can we expect South Africa to reopen for international tourists?
South Africa might reopen from September 2020
The Tourism Business Council of South Africa, an umbrella body of regional tourism associations, is suggesting South Africa could safely open up for inbound travel from September 2020 onward.
This puts to bed the widely shared but incorrect idea that South Africa might only open up its borders in February 2021, based on speculative estimates presented during a joint webinar hosted on 11 May 2020 by SA Tourism CEO, Sisa Ntshona, and the Tourism Business Council of SA (TBCSA) CEO, Tshifhiwa Tshivhengwa. Both Mr Ntshona and Mr Tshivhenwa highlighted that the South African government's risk-adjusted strategy did not commit itself to any firm dates, and cautioned that the graphics shared during the presentation were speculative, to be used as a starting point for discussion only. But that did not stop bloggers and journalists around the world from jumping to conclusions and putting out misleading headlines that South Africa would only open for tourists in February 2021.
Travel safety protocols
Through a process of extensive consultation with industry experts and stakeholders, the tourism industry in South Africa has pulled together to compile a comprehensive set of operational safety protocols which would allow the travel industry to reopen sooner and operate safely within the risk-adjusted approach adopted by the South African government in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The reality is that no firm reopening date has been agreed upon. The government has not committed itself to a specific date, and has welcomed the proactive approach by the tourism industry to develop these world-class safety protocols, which not only follow international best practice and WHO guidelines, but are setting the standard for other countries around the world. The extensive protocols cover all aspects of the travel experience, including flights and transfers, accommodation and dining, road transport and game drives, car hire, guided tours and activities.
These comprehensive guidelines make it possible to mitigate the risk of infection at all levels of inbound travel, paving the way for South Africa to begin reopening its borders to selected markets from September onward, in a phased approach. The protocols have been crafted to mitigate the risk of infection while being pragmatic and easy enough to implement, so that the tourist experience is not negatively affected.
Having been directly involved with the drafting and fine-tuning of these temporary safety protocols, I have high confidence that inbound tourism to South Africa can safely reopen in a phased manner from September 2020 onward. The final decision with regard to reopening dates for different markets will rest with the government, but we look forward to welcoming guests to this beautiful part of the world as soon as the pandemic is brought under control.
Will it be safe to travel after COVID-19?
While everyone is naturally hoping for a safe and effective vaccine to be developed soon, we believe even without a vaccine, within a few months from now, it will be safe to travel to Africa for all but the most high-risk individuals (such as people over 75 and those with certain existing health conditions). Here are some reasons why we hold this view:
Firstly, airlines around the world have been working to ensure the safety of passengers and reduce the risk of infection. The measures include zero contact check in and boarding procedures, thorough disinfection between flights, wearing of masks, and improved filtration and circulation of onboard air. Most modern planes use HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filters, which are also used in hospital operating rooms, which are said to extract virtually all microbes and viruses from cabin air. When the ventilation system on planes is operating, airplane cabins have a very high ratio of outside fresh air to recirculated air – about 10 times higher than most commercial buildings.
Secondly, Africa has been hailed as an ideal travel destination post-COVID due to the wide open spaces, remote game reserves, fresh air and sunshine, and low density of tourists. Our safaris do not operate in large groups or in crowded spaces, and even our top tourist attractions are generally far less crowded than popular global tourist attractions in major cities.
Thirdly, it is likely that by the last quarter of 2020, the virus will be so widespread and ubiquitous around the world that the risk of getting on a plane and going to Africa will be the same as the risk of going to work, or to a local supermarket or restaurant. It might even be safer, due to the reasons mentioned above, and the comprehensive safety protocols that will be in place.
What kind of safety protocols will be in place?
The protocols and guidelines are too detailed to list them all here, but here is a small sampling of the steps that will be taken to mitigate the risk of infection:
- A Covid-19 safety briefing and traveler health survey upon arrival.
- Daily temperature and symptom screening of staff and guests to identify and isolate sick people or those with symptoms.
- All vehicles will be sanitized between trips and even between game drives, with particular attention to public surfaces or shared objects such as armrests, seat belt buckles, support grabs, door handles, etc.
- All staff and guests are expected to wear a mask except when they are in their own room or away from other guests.
- Hand sanitizer and spare masks will be available to all guests.
- We will temporarily suspend shared courtesy binoculars or any other objects being handed from person to person.
- Temporary vehicle capacity limits will be in place to ensure that you will not be seated right next to an unconnected individual, until it is deemed safe to do so again and the protocols are relaxed. Families or groups traveling together are welcome to sit together.
- Appropriate social distancing will be observed.
- Special precautions will be taken during meal times. For example, no unsupervised buffet meals where shared dishes or shared utensils may increase the risk of infection.
This novel coronavirus has had a devastating impact on the world and the travel industry. It has destroyed thousands of lives and livelihoods around the world. But we live in hope. Life and travel is never without risk, and the threat of COVID-19 is a new but manageable risk factor that we need to mitigate as best we can, but also learn to live with. May COVID-19 never stop us from dreaming, from travelling, from experiencing and appreciating the beauty of nature. We look forward to seeing borders open up again, travel restrictions lifted, and life return to normal as soon as the pandemic is brought under control.