This is a developing story. For the latest information on traveling during the coronavirus outbreak, visit the websites of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.
As the coronavirus pandemic spread globally, South Africa was quick to take action. On March 18, the nation closed its borders to any foreign traveler who in the previous 20 days had been in the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, Iran, Germany, China, or South Korea. Two days later, South African Airways suspended all international flights.
Once countries started easing lockdown rules several months later, tourism minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane issued a May 30 statement indicating that “based on the COVID-19 epidemic expected trajectory,” international tourism wouldn’t return to South Africa until “next year.” But the country’s tourism industry believes that date can and should come sooner and is now lobbying to reopen to international travelers as early as September 2020.
Currently the government and the travel sector are reviewing and revising South Africa’s reopening strategy to see if that is feasible. Here’s what we know now.
So far, only limited domestic travel has resumed in South Africa
As of June 1, South Africa entered alert level 3 on a five-level scale, with five referring to maximum alert/lockdown. At level 3, business travel resumed between cities and provinces and allowed for self-driven visits to public and private game reserves and national parks within residents’ home provinces. Initially, the tourism industry was designated to reopen during alert level 1 with some operations, including business travel, allowed in alert level 2. But the tourism industry worked with the government to move that phased domestic business reopening up into alert level 3. There are no dates yet for when level 2 (when domestic leisure travel will resume) and level 1 (when restricted international travel can start) will be implemented.
Similarly, the tourism board has yet to name a specific date for international tourism to resume, but South Africa’s tourism private sector, operating under the umbrella organization of the Tourism Business Council of South Africa (TBCSA), is lobbying for it to be as soon as September 2020.
“We are confident that we are in a position to reopen [the] inbound market in a safe and health-focused manner at least in September,” Tshifhiwa Tshivhengwa, CEO of TBCSA, said in a statement citing its success at getting business travel moved into alert level 3.
September marks the beginning of South Africa’s summer high season, which runs through March, and accounts for 60 percent of the country’s annual tourism income. According to the TBCSA, inbound international tourism is responsible for employing 375,000 people in South Africa, and COVID-19 is already responsible for the loss of 40,000 jobs in the tourism sector.
“[The] COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound effect on the South African tourism industry,” Greg Fox, the Cape Town–based cofounder of Mahlatini, an African tour operator with offices in South Africa and the United Kingdom, told AFAR. “There is a vicious cycle where the decrease in tourism directly results in food insecurity for local communities that rely so heavily on the industry; this in turn leads to increased wildlife poaching pressure.”
A September reopening will likely be limited to a regional “travel bubble”
In a press release dated June 3, 2020, the South African Tourism board pointed out that it has “noticed some global destinations are now assessing entering the regional phase of reopening through AirBridge/Travel Bubbles between regional countries.”
TBCSA also referred to this travel bubble strategy, saying the proposed recovery strategy provides for a trial phase where people from “safe source markets with similar risk profiles and stages of pandemic are allowed to travel to South Africa” to low-risk areas away from cities with high densities of people where hot spots of COVID-19 have developed.
Maija de Rijk-Uys is managing director of Go2Africa, a Cape Town–based safari travel company and one of the many tour operators currently involved in the lobbying efforts with the government. She told AFAR she feels optimistic about the proposed phased approach presented and the September target date.
“The resumption of travel of course would be accompanied [by] appropriate safety protocols, starting with the lower-density and lower-risk areas like the key safari regions, and eventually including major hubs like Cape Town and Johannesburg,” de Rijk-Uys said.
Because South Africa’s national parks are extremely popular and can become busy as a result, tour operators are encouraging travelers to plan trips to “smaller but equally spectacular” private game reserves, Fox said, like the Phinda Private Game Reserve and Marataba. Go2Africa suggests travelers also consider Madikwe Game Reserve, the fifth largest but one of the lesser-known game reserves in South Africa. They also recommend the Eastern Cape reserves, including the Pumba Private Game Reserve, which is known for its rare white lion population.
Neither TBCSA nor South African Tourism named which countries those safe source markets may include in that travel bubble. However, tourism from the United States might not be too far behind that initial September travel bubble if U.S. airlines get their way. In May, Delta submitted a regulatory filing to the Department of Transportation to add Cape Town to its route list from Atlanta starting October 24, 2020, “depending on the travel restrictions imposed by either country due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.”
South Africa’s coronavirus peak isn’t expected until August
Data from Johns Hopkins University shows that as of June 18, 2020, South Africa had the most confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Africa with 80,412 cases. (Though Egypt has a lower case count with 49,219 confirmed cases, Egypt slightly outpaces South Africa with regard to COVID-19 deaths with 1,850 deaths compared to South Africa’s 1,674 deaths.)
Despite the country’s strict lockdown measures, infections continue to rise. According to a government report released in late May, the coronavirus peak is expected to happen sometime in August, with around 100,000 active cases, before declining.
With this in mind, South Africa’s tourism sector says it will continue to review and revise its phased reopening strategy and that travelers will need to understand that changes will happen on a regular basis.
So far, the South African travel industry has agreed to work towards implementing refundable deposits and lenient cancellation terms that don’t penalize for COVID-19 related cases, de Rijk-Uys said.
“As an industry, we see the current situation as an opportunity to come together and ensure an even better and safer experience for our travelers,” de Rijk-Uys said.
This article originally appeared online on June 10, 2020; it was updated on June 18, 2020, to include current information.