March marked one year since the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic and the tourism industry came to a complete standstill. One year later, and most of us are still grappling to come to terms with a new reality for tourism, a reality of vaccinations, Covid passports, quarantines and travel restrictions.
Although some travel to Africa has resumed, the vastly varying travel logistics in different African countries in the Covid era still feel restrictive, confusing and complex, according to industry players. Some countries accept rapid antigen tests, others do not. Most require a negative test results not older than 72 hours but do not have the facilities or capacity to offer PCR tests with rapid results. Some countries want a test not older than 48 hours, others allow up to 96 hours. With every country adopting a different strategy and different timelines for testing requirements, the travel and tourism industry calls for some form of standardization.
"The different testing requirements across different African countries make it much more difficult to combine destinations, and this is a deterrent to travelers," said Onne Vegter, co-founder of Wild Wings Safaris.
Vegter said Zimbabwe, for example, requires a negative PCR test taken less than 48 hours before flying to the country. This is impractical, as it makes it impossible for tourists to arrive in Johannesburg in the evening and continue to Victoria Falls the following day, as their original negative PCR test used to enter South Africa will no longer be valid and there is not enough time to do a new test (with a 24-hour turnaround time for results).
"Wasting an additional day and night in Johannesburg to obtain a negative test is not ideal and might deter travelers from including Zimbabwe in their itinerary," he said.
A popular itinerary, according to Vegter, is combining Victoria Falls with a visit to Livingstone Island or Devil's Pool in Zambia and then nearby Chobe National Park in Botswana, starting and ending in South Africa. "This itinerary is almost impossible to arrange now due to PCR testing requirements," he said. "In every country, the guests will have to do another PCR test [at additional cost] before moving on to the next destination.
"The testing costs, limited availability or capacity of testing facilities, and the long waiting times which impact their itinerary are only one part of the problem," he said. "False positive PCR tests are also a concern. We've already had guests who missed their flight home due to a false positive PCR test. When they tested again elsewhere, they were negative. Subsequent antibody tests proved that they never had Covid and that the positive tests were false positives, possibly due to high cycle thresholds or lab incompetence."
Right partners ease concerns
Marcelo Novais, managing director of Ker & Downey Africa, agreed that clients are concerned about the ever-changing travel regulations and policies. However, he said that partnering with a reliable ground partner can help alleviate many of these concerns.
"At Ker & Downey Africa, we are arranging our clients' itineraries according to PCR test requirements," he said. "This entails booking clients into lodges that accept or offer fly-in doctors who can conduct the PCR test or ending trips near destinations that offer testing. This means clients will be able to take a test and return to the lodge to enjoy the remaining 48 hours of their trip and receive their results via email before departure."
African Travel said travelers are seeking companies that take care of every detail in planning and while traveling. Things like a 24/7 Concierge service, arranging Covid-19 tests at the appropriate times and experts that have their own extensive database of protocols and relationships in destinations are greatly valued.
"Travel now is about maximizing time and convenience without comprising well-being," said Sherwin Banda, president of African Travel. "Americans are not deterred to travel, as we are seeing a record number of inquiries for travel for this year or next. If they want to go, they will find a way and the best is for them to talk to destination experts and their travel advisor."
Wayne Nupe of AndBeyond agreed and said that although there are slight variations in different destinations, ensuring you partner with established travel operators like AndBeyond, who are based on the continent, means that can all be easily managed.
"We have had very few issues when it comes to testing and getting results back," he said. "During peak travel times, result times will vary, but we have dedicated people in place to ensure that our guests' requirements are met."
Travelers greatly appreciate the expert help from destination management companies on the ground. Giltedge Africa recently hosted a fam trip for its top U.S. travel agents, and executive chairman Sean Kritzinger asked agents about their experience with the testing requirements.
"You think that in Africa, they don't have all the steps in place that a powerhouse nation like America has, but it's actually been the exact opposite," said Leah Kirgis, of World of Luxury Travel. "They've really nailed it to a T. The procedures were easy, I always felt safe, the testing turnaround was extremely quick, and while some people may say that will take away from your experience, in fact, for me, it made me feel safer. Knowing that everyone who came into the country or that everyone at a particular lodge has been tested makes you feel much more comfortable and safer."
Claire Hearn of Stray Dog Travel added that the key to travelling at the moment is being a bit more flexible. "I've had Covid tests in hotels, VIP private lounges and even an airport hangar. It was all part of the trip, and at no time has it been an inconvenience. We haven't had to take half a day out to go and have a test in the middle of nowhere."
Although partnering with an expert can bring relief, streamlining and easing the testing requirements across borders is still the best solution to boost tourism to Africa, according to industry players.
Commonsense approach needed
Raza Visram of AfricanMecca Safaris said that a uniform and standard regulation for arriving and departing travelers needs to be adopted with common sense.
"Metaphorically speaking," he said, "we need the captains of the respective ships to deliver on consistency, reliability and cooperation to create a working system in place because covid is going to be here to stay for a while, like malaria, TB and other illnesses. How the situation is managed and organized is critical."
Banda agreed and said, "There is an opportunity for local governments to work together to streamline their entry and exit requirements, which will certainly help to increase cross-border travel. It will give travelers confidence to book now because they will know they will have a hassle-free safari experience filled with bucket list moments across the continent."
A vaccination passport could be the ultimate answer for the tourism industry.
"This would be an incredible leap forward. It will allow for greater and smoother travel for all guests," said Nupen. "For many years, the yellow fever certificates have been effectively used to ensure guests can travel without any restrictions if they are vaccinated. This will, in effect, be a similar proposition and will reduce complexities around testing considerably. As many guests visit two or sometimes three countries on a typical trip to Africa, the vaccination passports will allow for those trips to occur without the need for testing to enter each country in the itinerary. This is, of course, all based on the assumption that all countries adopt it and allow guests to enter the country without testing, provided they are vaccinated."
However, Vegter warned the vaccination passport remains a controversial idea and may in itself deter certain travelers. Unfortunately, the slow pace of vaccination in many countries worldwide, including South Africa, means that a vaccination passport will not be readily available for many travelers.
"We cannot discriminate against people who do not yet have access to vaccines or who, for health reasons, may be unable to receive the vaccine," Vegter said. "The risk of a vaccination passport being rolled out too soon, before vaccine access is universal, is that people's right to travel will be curtailed on a discriminatory basis. Anyone who has tested negative or has natural immunity after recovery from a previous Covid-19 infection should be allowed to travel. Anything more stringent than this will draw much criticism and will certainly deter travel to Africa."