Dorine Reinstein
Dorine Reinstein

Tourism players both in South Africa and its neighbors celebrated this month as President Cyril Ramaphosa officially opened the borders to travelers from all countries, including the U.S. They called the news a significant first step to reigniting tourism to Africa. However, some obstacles still remain. 

"This news is a real game-changer for us -- not only from a short-term perspective and saving existing reservations for international clients but also now allowing the international operators to start booking with more confidence," said Cindy Sheedy Walker, CEO of Extraordinary. 

Walker said there is a great deal more interest and movement in the market. 

"People are keen to travel, and the wide-open spaces of Africa beckon," she said. "We have already seen German and USA agents arriving for site inspections, and they are creating positive, real feedback for their customers to encourage the reignition of travel to Africa."

Katja Quasdorf, Hideaways Africa, said the news that the borders were opened is exactly what the tourism sector needed to create some dim light at the end of the tunnel and to create some hope and energy in order to keep moving and start rebuilding. 

"The minute it was released," she said, "the energy from partners, agents and guests changed. I am happy to say that on Nov. 16, we received the same inquiries in one day that we received in one week for the two weeks prior. It's a great motivation." 

Open gateway opens the region

The news has also been welcomed by neighboring countries to which South Africa is the gateway, including Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, all of which are on the same page now as far as allowing international visitors with only a negative PCR test required.

"With the latest news of Botswana reopening, logistics of getting clients to Botswana via Johannesburg was uncertain, but with the borders opening up again, it eases logistics significantly," said Jenieen van den Heever, head of sales and operations for Ker & Downey Africa. 

Ross Kennedy, CEO of Africa Albida Tourism, called the reopening of South Africa's borders extremely positive news, albeit step one in a long and difficult process ahead for tourism. He warns that the reality has to unfold on the ground with clarity of policy and protocols aligned to Covid. 

"There is and will be increased demand, but it is slow and cautious" he said. "There is no 'business back to normal.' There is no magic wand."

Quasdorf agreed and explained that what is needed now is consistency and no changes for a few months. 

"That's when travelers will feel comfortable to think about booking," she said. "Show them that for a month or two you have made no changes to your immigration requirements, and the industry will see it as 'safe' to talk about you as a destination."

A positive development is that everyone can start looking ahead and making plans. Airlines can finally start planning flights to the onward destinations in Africa, said Ade Coley, Flatdogs Camps in Zambia. He warned, however, that with the continued testing requirements when moving across borders, multicountry travel is still challenging.

Testing requirements dampen enthusiasm

The stringent testing requirements is exactly what is currently frustrating a number of American agents. Raza Visram at AfricanMecca Safaris said the 72-hour window for the Covid test results is a major inconvenience in enabling travel to Southern Africa

"Covid testing in the U.S. is taking one to three days, with fast turnaround only being applied to the most needed cases of hospitalization and surgeries," he said. "A 72-hour window will directly overburden the traveler, considering the amount of effort required and the sheer personal organization needed. 

"Additionally, there is a major issue of returning back to South Africa when visiting neighboring countries, as it is mathematically impossible to achieve all that when an average tour takes 10 to 12 days prior to arrival in South Africa."

Sean Kritzinger, executive chairman of Giltedge, agreed that the 72-hour Covid test requirement is a challenge, since some states in the U.S. are taking four to five days to process the test. However, Kritzinger said industry professionals are working on a solution.

"In an ideal world, we would like clients to require one test that is valid for the use for all [Southern African Development Community] countries," he said. 

According to Kritzinger some lodges have already put testing facilities in place, like Royal Chundu in Zambia, for example. Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe also has testing facilities. 

"Botswana remains a problem as clients would have to fly to Maun to get tests done two days before they leave," he said. "However, it has only been a week since Botswana and South Africa have opened, and these issues will be addressed shortly. We need to be patient while the authorities from each country come up with a suitable solution, which we hope will be early December 2020."

Although Jim Holden, president of Holden Safaris, has full confidence that the obstacles around the 72-hour Covid test will be resolved as testing becomes routine and more rapid testing becomes available, he still feels that the announcement of the border opening felt like an anticlimax. 

"The news came just as we in America and Europe are experiencing another surge in the virus, making us all nervous again about international travel," Holden said. "Americans are preoccupied with the ongoing presidential election result, the big annual Thanksgiving holiday in November followed by the Christmas holiday period in December. It is welcome news nevertheless, with families now able to at least start planning a safari for late 2021." 

Waiting on a vaccine

Ultimately, only a vaccine will be able to fully restore traveler confidence, agreed travel experts.

Johnny Prince, CEO and co-founder of Timbuktu, said: "We see the opening of borders as a positive step in the right direction, and we are hopeful that we will gradually see a recovery in the travel industry, particularly when combined with other encouraging news such as a vaccine."

The reopening of the borders doesn't mean things will be 'back to normal,' Walker said. 

"If we are lucky, we will see 50% of previous years' volume during 2021 -- but after the past seven months, I will take it!" she said. "It has been an opportunity to strengthen the South African domestic travel market for many, and hopefully the importance of our "locals" will be remembered. 

"We have also had time to become more aware of our staff needs, and community initiatives have been reviewed and improved upon" Walker added. "There is a sense of community throughout the industry!"

Sherwin Banda, president of African Travel, is positive about the future and said he has seen pent-up demand as Americans are eager to travel again. He said he has a number of clients who are wanting to travel to South Africa in December, which is very encouraging. 

"We are confident that we will be seeing more and more inquiries now that the borders are open, because S.A. has always been a top African destination for travel," he said, adding that he foresees strong demand for travel in the second half of the year, with 90% of travelers having rebooked from 2020 to 2021 and the majority traveling in the second half of the year. 

Banda said African Travel is also receiving inquiries for 2022-2023. 

"People are actively searching online for destinations like Africa given the fact that it has wide-open spaces," he said. "It's a bucket list experience, and we believe the future is bright for Africa."

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