United Airlines' announcement this month that the airline would be launching direct flights from the New York area to Johannesburg, South Africa, was a reason for great celebrations for the tourism industry. However, just days after the airline revealed news, the U.S. State Department issued a Level 4 travel advisory for South Africa -- placing the country in the same league as nations such as Afghanistan and North Korea. Luckily, the "unrealistic" travel advisory is unlikely to deter Americans' enthusiasm for travel to Africa, tourism leaders say.
United will be launching new nonstop daily service between Newark and Johannesburg starting June 3, subject to government approvals. Operated on a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, the flight will leave from Newark at 8:45 p.m. and arrive in South Africa the next day at 5:45 p.m. Return flights will leave South Africa at 8 p.m. and arrive in Newark the next day at 5:45 a.m.
Africa specialists welcomed the new flight, saying it will play an integral role in encouraging travelers to return to Africa.
"We expect to receive a boost in demand from the U.S. market, as it not only adds a level of security to U.S. travelers, but it makes logistics much easier," said Marcelo Novais, GM North America for Ker & Downey Africa. "By avoiding connecting flights, travelers will only be required to do one PCR test prior to travel,"
African Bush Camps' Karl Parkinson added that the fact that a U.S.-based airline is going into Africa speaks to reassurance and confidence in the destination.
"In the absence of any other direct airlinks, it's exactly what we need to encourage people to travel," he said, adding that U.S. travel advisors are excited that they won't have to send their clients to Africa via Europe. "What complicates things in Europe are the different Covid protocols. The fact that there is a one-stop solution in terms of getting to your destination is really exciting people."
Johnny Prince, co-founder and CEO of Timbuktu Travel, agreed and said that especially with the severe impact of the narrative around the "South African Variant" it's great that international airlines are starting to launch flights back into South Africa.
"Direct flights from the U.S. have been limited in the past, so it's a real bonus to have an airline launching a direct route," Prince said. "It will certainly help boost travel from the U.S."
Although the tourism industry is excited about the new flight, the excitement hasn't necessarily translated in bookings just yet. Jim Holden, president of Holden Safaris, explained that booking international flights during Covid is more of an art than a science, with airlines changing schedules as fast as they are published. He cited the example of Kenya Airways, which relaunched its nonstop flights from New York to Nairobi in the beginning of the year only to have to cancel them as the U.S. went into another Covid surge.
"Agents with experience will wait for more certainty before booking flights that may not operate," he said.
The State Department's announcement that it deemed approximately 80% of countries worthy of the "Do Not Travel" designation threw another spanner in the works. The CDC also issued a Level 4 Travel Health Notice for South Africa.
The South African travel industry reacted with shock and outrage at the U.S. classification. Tourism leaders said that while South Africa has its problems, the USA has similar issues. The industry called on the U.S. ambassador to South Africa to explain the reasoning behind the advisory.
In the U.S., travel advisors expressed disbelief at the advisory.
"U.S. State Department travel warnings have become a very blunt instrument when it comes to helping Americans to make informed international travel choices," Holden said. "An isolated street protest, in an obscure part of a country, is enough for the State Department to issue a blanket travel warning to avoid the whole country. The 20% not on the State Department "Do Not Travel" list are probably new and obscure countries such as South Sudan that are not yet on the list of countries reviewed by the State Department."
Although some travelers will undoubtedly be discouraged by the travel advisories, the majority are undeterred, according to Africa specialists.
Elizabeth Gordon, co-founder and CEO of Extraordinary Journeys, said, "About 80% of people who were planning to travel and are vaccinated are sticking with their plans. It's just a matter of where we can get them safely and efficiently, without compromising the experience we want to craft for them. The last 20% are postponing.
"I think the current government messaging is part of the reason why some guests are postponing," Gordon added. "There is confusion and decay of confidence, since just three weeks ago the message was that you could travel safely once you were vaccinated."
Parkinson added he hasn't seen any difference in interest following the warnings.
"We haven't seen any difference from the State announcements," he said. "People have had enough, they want to get out, and they see Africa as part of the solution, not the problem.
"The infection rate in South Africa is one of the lowest in the world. We have the situation under control, and we have the protocols in place to ensure that when people arrive in the country, they are well taken care of. We haven't seen any curb in enthusiasm. If people want to travel, they will, and they will travel responsibly.