South Africa travel execs dismayed by Biden's travel ban

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Cape Town, South Africa. The U.S. will move to ban arrivals from South Africa beause of a strain of Covid-19 emerging in that country.
Cape Town, South Africa. The U.S. will move to ban arrivals from South Africa beause of a strain of Covid-19 emerging in that country.

The Biden administration will impose a ban on non-U.S. citizens entering the country from South Africa to contain the spread of a new variant of Covid-19, effective Jan. 30. 

"We are adding South Africa to the restricted list because of the concerning variant present that has already spread beyond South Africa," Dr. Anne Schuchat, the principal deputy director of the CDC, told Reuters in a news interview. 

The announcement dealt a blow to the South African travel industry. 

"This will certainly delay any recovery of international tourism, on which we all rely for a real potential of recovery," said Don Scott, the owner of Tanda Tula. "The effects will depend on how long such a travel ban remains in place, but it is not good news for the already battered South African tourism sector."

Although it should not directly impact inbound travel to South Africa from the U.S., it is likely to impact traveler confidence, said Lisa Nel, general manager of marketing and product at Jumbari Family Safaris. 

"We are cautious of how this ban can affect clients' confidence in considering South Africa as a destination for travel in 2021," Nel said. "As most of our clients book their trips at least 300 days prior to travel, we hope that they will continue to book their trip for later this year and in 2022."

Elizabeth Gordon, of Extraordinary Journeys, said flight schedules might be affected by this new ban, which would make flying back home difficult. "It is slightly ironic, since the U.S. doesn't do a very good job of sequencing Covid variation while South Africa actually does," she said. 

Craig Beal, of Travel Beyond, said there is no doubt that it will have an immediate effect on those traveling in the next few months. 

"Almost every client in this situation will contact us to ask about the status of their trip, to consider deferring or to gain more information," Beal said. "We will have to field these questions and encourage them to embrace a wait-and-see approach. During that time, we determine the trip's feasibility given current testing requirements and Africa's ability to meet said conditions. We also expect that there will be another dip in inquiries, which had actually been picking up over the past few weeks."

But it's not all doom and gloom. The Moderna vaccine may provide immunity against the South African variant, and the company is working on a booster they believe will protect against the variant. "This was precisely what many in the medical field, including Dr.[Anthony] Fauci, highlighted as being essential in our continued efforts to fight Covid-19. This is undeniably positive and will give some clients the confidence they need to continue traveling," he said, adding that most of the clients traveling in the next five months are hardy and resilient and unlikely to pull the plug on their trips in a panic. 

The bottom line, according to Beal, is that be it for Africa at large or southern Africa in particular, there is no reason to be overly concerned about the new strains. 

"Between an increase in customer education and news of vaccine efficacy, I think the travel ban is just another stumbling block in the road to recovery, a path I hope we've finally embarked upon," he said.

Raza Visram, of African Mecca Safaris, doesn't see the ban in a negative light. "This ban of course means less travel in the short term but success in the long run," he said. "Stopping the movement and spread is critical for the new Biden administration. Rather than having a ragtag policy, this administration is doing everything to control the spread so we can also come back to some sort of normalcy. The Biden administration wants to focus on solutions rather than putting out new fires every day."

According to Visram, the ban is unlikely to have a "long-term" effect on travel confidence or on travel to South Africa. "The U.S. travelers are very familiar and comfortable with South Africa as a sophisticated, mature and modern destination and as portrayed/represented very well in the media," he said.

Jim Holden, president of Holden Safaris, agreed and said there is a growing impatience in America at the restrictions on travel. "As soon as the restrictions are lifted, the floodgates will open, and Americans will be leaving the USA for overseas destinations, including South Africa, in their droves," he said, adding that Covid is the problem, not South Africa. 

"Vaccination availability, both in the USA and South Africa, along with approved air corridors, based on where Covid infections are still prevalent, will dictate where and when Americans can travel," Holden said.

Updated: This report was updated to clarify information about the Moderna vaccine and its ability to protect against the Covid-19 variant found in South Africa.

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