Even with open borders, SA remains red-listed by many countries, and tourists may not come

Business Insider SA -  Sep 16, 2020

  • South Africa is reopening its borders, at least partially, soon.
  • But that doesn't mean foreign visitors will immediately stream into the country.
  • Despite relatively low and dropping new coronavirus case numbers, SA remains red-listed by many countries, which means quarantine for those who travel here when they return home.
  • SA now has to decide whether to accept risky tourists, as the tourism industry looks toward a multi-year recovery.


President Cyril Ramaphosa announced on Wednesday that South Africa will open its borders to internationally tourists in October - with some caveats. 

But that doesn’t mean they will come. South Africa remains on many so-called red-lists as far as leisure travel goes, even as infection numbers drop.

Depending on the country’s specific system and requirements, this means that although South African borders may be open for leisure travel, those who come could be subjected to mandatory quarantines on their return.

The most significant overseas contributors to local tourism come from the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, The Netherlands, and France. Although South Africa’s coronavirus situation is improving, none have yet placed SA on list of countries that do not require at least self-isolation upon return.

That could be an issue, says South African Tourism CEO Sisa Ntshona.

“Home-country quarantines are a barrier.

But he is hopeful, considering the rapid change in new infections reported in South Africa.

"According to UK criteria we were in the red zone last week, but we’ve now moved into the amber or yellow zone, and projections are that we are going to move into the green zone within the next two weeks,” says Nsthona.

The methods used to determine these red zones or lists vary from country to country. 

The United Kingdom and Germany, for example, use a variety of factors to determine a country’s status - but primarily looks at the infection rate over the previous seven days, to arrive at an estimation of active cases. 

In the case of the United Kingdom, infection levels must be below 20 new cases per 100,000 of the population over the previous seven days. In Germany, this figure is 50 new cases per 100,000 over the last week.

According to the most recent data, South Africa is reporting approximately 18.58 new cases per 100,000 per week – well within Germany’s threshold, and just under the United Kingdom’s. 

Even so, most countries that the South African tourism sector is heavily reliant on have yet to ease restrictions. 

According to the German mission in South Africa, at present, “given the Covid situation in South Africa, Lesotho and Eswatini, these countries currently do not belong to the list of countries, where travel restrictions could be eased”. 

The same is true for the United Kingdom - which has dropped isolation requirements for residents returning from some 66 countries - but still requires them for visitors from South Africa.

The Netherlands has a slightly softer stance; that country’s government “strongly advises” travellers returning from several destinations, including South Africa, to self-quarantine at home or in temporary hotel accommodation for 10 days upon arrival in the Netherlands.

These zones are a moving target, which Ntshona says makes planning difficult.

“This calibration is done on a weekly basis, so all of this can change if suddenly numbers spike up,” he says.

Because of this much of his organisation's focus will be on countries in Europe that are a relatively easy night flight away.

“Many people argue that South Africa is a long-haul destination, but we’re arguing that it’s an overnight flight away, especially for Europe. So we are now looking to position ourselves as an overnight flight destination, so we can get into the shorter term type of booking,” says Ntshona.

Ntshona also says that given the constantly shifting patterns of Covid-19 infections, it may well lead to travellers taking more spontaneous trips. 

But with many European Union countries allowing relatively unrestricted internal travel – and with no requirement to self-quarantine upon return – it may prove a difficult sell to get these visitors to venture further than a regional trip.

Nsthona believes these issues are not insurmountable, but require countries to remain agile as Covid-19 infection numbers rise and fall.

“We’ve seen the turmoil between the UK, France and Spain, where UK tourists were already in Spain, and then suddenly were subjected to a 14 day quarantine on return because of Spain’s changing status. That complicates plans,” he says.

Ntshona believes South Africa could be in many countries’ green zones by early October. 

"We’ve already seen the likes of Switzerland move us into the green zone as well, so essentially we’re moving into the right space,” he says.

According to Switzerland's Federal Office of Public Health, South Africa is no longer on that country's mandatory quarantine list, as of Monday.

South Africa, in turn, will have to decide whether to welcome visitors that may bring a resurgence of the virus.

“The question is, is South Africa as a country willing to accept that travellers from red zones, who bring their own risk?” asks Nsthona.

Even with open borders, and the possible arrival of some international visitors, there’s little chance of recovering anything close to the usual international traveller spend in South Africa.

“We’ve estimated that it will take us 24 to 30 months in order to restore to 2019 levels of activity, so it’s a two and a half year recovery,” he says.