The reimposition of the travel ban comes after the discovery of a mutated Covid-19 variant, called Omicron. While this restriction on the doorstep of the upcoming holiday season could be the nail in the coffin for the South African economy, tourists are temporarily forced into quarantine or barred from entering their own countries of residence.
South Africa in the Covid spotlight
South Africa has been on a slippery slope with the UK since the first lockdowns were imposed. After months of lobbying from tourism bodies and relevant stakeholders, the UK finally relented early in October 2021 and removed South Africa from their red list. This came as a sigh of relief for the tourism industry, who had undoubtedly been the hardest hit by the previous bans.
The minor victory was dealt an agonising blow last week when news of a new strain, far more transmissible than previous strains, came to light. Within hours, the United Kingdom suspended all inbound flights from South Africa, as well as five other African countries. European and Asian countries like Germany, Israel, Japan and Singapore have since followed suit by banning flights and restricting movement across borders. Even Brazil and the US have imposed similar bans against South Africa.
Both President Cyril Ramaphosa and Minister Aaron Motsoaledi of the Department of Home Affairs (“DHA”) have expressed their concern that countries were too quick to impose travel bans without understanding the true nature of the mutated virus. With confirmed cases in the UK, Botswana and Belgium, it can’t even be determined whether the latest variant originated in South Africa.
“We are deeply disappointed by the decisions of several countries to prohibit travel from a number of Southern African countries,” the President said in his speech. “We call upon all those countries that have imposed travel bans on our country and our Southern African sister countries to urgently reverse their decisions and lift the bans they have imposed before any further damage is done to our economies.”
The impact on travellers and the SA economy
During the first 2020 lockdowns, there were tales of distraught travellers stuck in limbo at airports, unable to leave because of travel bans. As borders began opening, this fear of being stuck in terminals caused a reluctance among those with plans to travel for work or pleasure. Then, with normalcy in sight, travel slowly gained momentum throughout 2021. Bookings for the holidays trickled in, while the lift on the ban of alcohol and cigarette sales further broadened the smile of small business owners. However, history is seemingly set to repeat itself.
With the new variant on the prowl, travellers who already arrived in the UK in the last 10 days will be subject to rigorous quarantines and PCR tests in an attempt to contain the spread. However, European, American and Asian tourists inside South Africa could yet again find themselves stranded in a foreign country while the pandemic rages on. Similarly, South Africans in other countries find themselves unsure if they will return to SA this year.
The news also sent a ripple of concern through the travel industry because another travel ban could be detrimental for the country. South African businesses with high hopes to recoup the losses of the previous season, are not thrilled by the notion of closing shop even before the holiday season kicks off.
Be prepared when the borders open up
Tourists are justifiably panicked by the decision of being denied entry into their home countries. Not only are they unable to enjoy their vacation, but they are also unable to see their loved ones. They are further plagued by the administrative nightmare that awaits. Visas must be renewed or extended, flights delayed, excursions cancelled, and work projects postponed. Employment commencement dates for expatriates working abroad could also come under fire.
The Department of International Relations and Cooperation (“DIRCO”) has said that repatriation flights for UK/Irish nationals and those with residence rights, would resume from 30 November 2021. The UK High Commission in Pretoria has confirmed that they would open their borders to flights from South Africa for this purpose alone, but will not be issuing visitors visas, which leaves other travellers in an uncomfortable space.
With all the uncertainty surrounding the current travel ban, travellers should take the time to engage with immigration specialists who are up to date with the most current travel industry regulations and changes. Travellers should further make sure their documentation is in order when the travel ban is finally lifted again. Considering the events of the last two years, it is better to be prepared. South Africans who are isolated in another country without a helpline, can engage with fellow SAFFAs or find Embassy updates on the South Africans Stranded Abroad Facebook group.