As South Africa's government is mulling the reopening of its borders in September, international travelers and travel agents alike have started considering the safety implications of their travels. South Africa's tourism industry, under the banner of the Tourism Business Council of South Africa (TBCSA), has been advocating for the phased reopening and is putting stringent measures in place to lower the risk and ensure the safety of travelers.
The protocols are aligned with guidelines from the World Health Organization as well as South Africa's National Institute of Communicable Disease and Department of Health and have been approved by the South African Department of Tourism. They cover, among other things, the designation of Covid-19 health and safety officers and team leaders; requiring visitors to complete medical and travel declarations compulsory temperature monitoring; and standard physical distancing and capacity controls.
Blacky Komani, TBCSA board chairperson, said the manner in which South Africa's government has dealt with Covid-19 has been lauded as a world-class approach to dealing with the pandemic. "The protocols have gone through a rigorous process. I'm proud to be part of this country. As South Africa, we are ready to receive tourists and do what we do best, which is take care of them when they arrive."
Sisa Ntshona, CEO of South African Tourism, agreed and added that domestic tourism has currently opened for business travel with partial domestic air travel now allowed. He said: "This move is largely thanks to the sector's proactive initiatives to de-risk itself. In this regard, the sector is taking the necessary steps to embed evidence-based health and safety measures at all touch points in the tourism value chain. This will go a long way in laying a foundation for a stronger and sustainable tourism sector."
Ntshona said it is imperative that travelers feel safe and secure. "It goes without saying that health and safety will be top of mind whether we are visiting a local park, attending a conference, going on vacation, boarding a flight or staying at a hotel," he said. "The need for such reassurance underpins the case for sectorwide health and safety protocols and standards in order to boost traveler confidence."
Numerous South African hotels, lodges and activities have proactively started implementing the safety protocols and have shared what guests can expect from their travel experience.
Airports in South Africa offer a mainly touchless experience where distancing has become the norm and passengers are requested to scan their own boarding passes. Travelers will also be asked to remove any metal and electronic items at security checkpoints and place the items in a designated tray, a procedure that is not normally practiced on flights within the country. This is to minimize the need for physical pat-downs.
The wearing of masks is currently obligatory in South Africa. On arrival at the lodge or hotel, luggage will be sprayed and wiped down. Hand sanitizer will be available to travelers, and social distancing is expected be observed at all times. Travelers will also be requested to fill out a medical form that inquires about any symptoms they may be experiencing.
Extra care will be taken that meals are served in a safe and responsible way, which means that dining will happen a la carte and buffets will be scrapped. Solo travelers will not be permitted to share a table with strangers due to strict social distancing rules.
The number of people on a game drive vehicle will also be kept to a minimum, although travelers from the same group or family will obviously be able to experience game drives together. Game drive vehicles will be thoroughly sanitized after each use.
In case a traveler feels unwell, some lodges have set up dedicated isolation suites where travelers can get tested. If visitors test positive, it is important to note that South Africa boasts the highest standard of health care in Africa, with an extensive network of private doctors, specialists and clinics.
Although lodges have adapted to the new reality of Covid in their operations, the safari experience remains the same or is even better than before, according to industry players.
Robert More, CEO and founder of the More Family Collection, said that although the hospitality group is committed to doing what it can to curb the spread of Covid-19, none of the efforts will compromise the guest experience.
Said More: "Social distancing may well put space between people, but our business is still reliant on human connections and on the ability to create life-enriching experiences for our visitors. We realize that people will be seeking wide-open spaces, fresh air, beautiful environments and intuitive, warm human service -- this is what we intend to deliver. Thankfully, ours is a product where distancing need not be negative: less people on a safari vehicle, for example, can only enhance the experience."
Marcelo Novais, general manager of Ker & Downey Africa DMC and Grand Africa Safaris, said that even prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, a high level of safety was observed. He said: "For example, our vehicles are new, and our drivers maintain an impeccable level of hygiene during and after each client's trip. This includes regular cleaning between and even during tours as well as drivers donning gloves. Going forward, our services will continue these high standards of hygiene protocols as well as implement the new regulations, such as wearing masks and implementing social distancing."
Social distancing is not difficult in Africa, according to the TBCSA's Komani. "We are not a mass tourism destination. South Africa is known for its space. You can drive for hours without seeing a single soul. We are geared for it," he said.
Novais agreed, pointing out that Africa's sought-after wilderness destinations are not densely populated and therefore the virus has had a low impact.
According to Novais, we can expect an influx of luxury and family travelers seeking out safari destinations in 2021. He said that according to a recent survey conducted by Ker & Downey, 63% of clients want to visit Southern Africa going forward.
Said Novais: "We predict that family travel will be highly sought-after once the global travel bans are lifted, as families will be looking to spend quality time together after being cooped up indoors and potentially missing their 2020 family holiday. The combination of travelers seeking exclusive holidays in remote destinations and the postponed bookings from 2020 will pose a challenge for availability in 2021."