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Confusion and chaos bedevil reopening of SA’s borders to international travellers

Confusion and chaos bedevil reopening of SA’s borders to international travellers
South Africa’s borders were closed in mid-March to stem the spread of the coronavirus. (Photo: Guillem Sartorio/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

A full two weeks after announcing the reopening of South Africa’s borders, critical ministries are still ironing out the regulations – to the chagrin of the tourism industry.

On Sunday and Monday government ministers were scrambling to disentangle the mess created by poor communication, ill-thought-through regulations and mixed messages about regulations for international travellers to South Africa. 

Four days after SA reopened its border to international flights, the biggest airline in the world, Emirates, cancelled its flight to Durban for Sunday.

Lufthansa, Germany’s biggest carrier, was also mulling over the suspension of its flights after some of its passengers were denied entry at Johannesburg International because of confusion over updated visa rules. 

South Africa’s borders were closed in mid-March to stem the spread of the coronavirus.  

The decision to reopen the borders was not made lightly, and President Cyril Ramaphosa announced on 17 September that South Africa would reopen its borders and ports of entry for international business and leisure travel on Thursday 1 October, subject to a slew of rules and regulations.

On the face of it, some of these regulations made sense. Travellers are expected to follow local regulations, including the mandatory wearing of masks in public, practising social distancing, regular washing or sanitising of hands and presenting a negative Covid-19 test result not older than 72 hours from the time of departure.

But from there on, it becomes more confusing.

For a start, the Department of Cooperative Governance neglected to rescind the requirement that all visitors have visas. This was introduced for foreigners arriving on repatriation flights, but should have been scrapped with the resumption of normal scheduled passenger services under lockdown Level 1.   

In addition, immigration and port health officials decided to treat aircrew as “visitors”, when they should not be classified in this way at all. 

“This resulted in crews being required to go for PCR [polymerase chain reaction] tests three days prior to each flight, just to satisfy SA’s regulations,” says aviation industry expert Linden Birns. 

And then there are seemingly random insurance regulations that require that travellers may only enter South Africa if they are in possession of travel insurance to cover the cost of Covid-19 tests and quarantine costs.

It appears that the government has made these unilateral decisions in an attempt to pass the costs relating to their testing and quarantine regulations on to a third party without engaging with the sellers of insurance.

The insurance industry was aghast – insurance works on the premise of uncertainty of an event occurring and a R400 (€20.46) insurance policy will not cover mandated government testing requirements and quarantine costs for a known event.

“It appears that the government has made these unilateral decisions in an attempt to pass the costs relating to their testing and quarantine regulations on to a third party without engaging with the sellers of insurance,” says the head of insurance at Travel Insurance Consultants, Jason Veitch. 

“As insurers are under no obligation to take on this level of risk, the government is creating a situation where it is impossible to travel to South Africa.”

The regulations were announced hours before the first flights were due to take off for SA. They were clarified at a media briefing on Friday 2 October, with further adjustments on Saturday evening and Sunday. 

On Sunday the Minister of Transport, Fikile Mbalula, clarified that both aircrew and passengers required a PCR certificate not more than 72 hours old and, like passengers, crew would be subjected to screening and prescribed health protocols upon arrival. 

The PCR certificate enables crew members to move freely in South Africa upon arrival, similar to passengers.

Aircrew who are not in possession of a negative PCR certificate can enter the country, but will not be permitted to move around freely and will have to self-quarantine at their hotel. 

However, the requirements for aircrew operating same-day return flights between SA and other countries in Africa remain unclear. Airlines have appealed to the Department of Tourism for aircrew who are coming and going on the same day, and who don’t need to go through immigration, to be exempted from the Covid-19 test certificate and quarantine requirement.

The Airlines Association of Southern Africa is anticipating clarification on this from Mbalula.

Also on Sunday, the Minister of Home Affairs, Aaron Motsoaledi, reinstated the visa-free status of citizens of some countries. These include South Korea, Spain, Italy, Germany, the US, the UK, Singapore, France, Portugal and Iran.

“The minister has instructed officials to communicate this decision to the aviation industry, embassies and other stakeholders as a matter of urgency,” a department statement read. 

Even with this clarification, the Level 1 regulations remain unnecessarily complicated, specifically around South Africa’s risk categorisation model for different international travellers. 

This classifies international travellers according to a scale of high, medium and low risk. High-risk travellers are those who come from countries with higher numbers of Covid-19 infections and reported deaths than South Africa and include the UK, the US, Iceland, India, the UAE and Qatar.

Opening of borders is the moment we have all been waiting for, but the way in which the government proposes to reopen is impractical and does not allow us to do our job and contribute in a revenue-positive way to South Africa.

According to the CEO of the Southern Africa Tourism Services Association, David Frost, there is “a disconnect” between Ramaphosa’s announcement and intentions, and the practical implementation of this. 

“Opening of borders is the moment we have all been waiting for, but the way in which the government proposes to reopen is impractical and does not allow us to do our job and contribute in a revenue-positive way to South Africa,” he says.

According to Frost, there is no transparency in terms of the criteria being used to evaluate high-risk countries, and practical implications and impediments have not been considered.

For instance, while leisure travellers from high-risk countries will not be permitted entry, business travellers from the same countries with scarce and critical skills, including diplomats, repatriated persons, investors and people participating in professional sporting and cultural events, will be permitted entry, obviously subject to the health protocol screenings. 

The CEO of the Tourism Business Council of South Africa, Tshifhiwa Tshivhengwa, adds that there is no public health reason to ban travellers from any country, provided the testing regime and protocols are adhered to.

In addition, the government’s plan to change the list of high-risk countries every two weeks is wholly impractical, he says.

“Inbound international travellers need time to plan their travel. Changing the list of unbanned countries every two weeks introduces a layer of complexity and uncertainty that will lead to erratic booking cycles and confusion among travellers.”

Zuks Ramasia, the CEO of the Board of Airline Representatives of SA (Barsa), was suitably diplomatic when she noted: “Barsa is pleased with the latest updates from government, which alleviate pressure as stringent restrictions are lifted. Affected airlines are now in the process of reinstating schedules to the benefit of our ailing economy, which needs all hands on deck.” DM/BM

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"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Andrew Johnson says:

    Did anyone expect anything other than absolute confusion, this from the team that gave you “Ciggies ? YES, Ciggies NO”

  • Ian Wallace Wallace says:

    The post of minister of tourism has been given out as a “thank you” for past loyalties and has been considered by government as a easy job to hold with some nice perks, you might remember this was the post given to “kortbroek” when he dissolved the national party and joined the ANC.

    Being in charge of the tourism portfolio in government has had little todo with competency and more to do with loyalty.

    Now that this bedrock of the economy is in crises the glaring inadequacies of the ministers in these positions is being paraded on the national stage in full view of the international community and we as South Africa are being show cased as a silly little country that no serious travel investors will want to risk capital expenditure on.

  • Dieter Butow says:

    Time for Mr President to wake up and realise that he has great incompetence in the cabinet and administration. They have had 7 month of lockdown in which to prepare the opening of borders and airports – still botch it up, the world is laughing. It is time to replace some ministers and officials with competent administrators – that is, if you are serious about getting SA back on its feet. Or is it part of the plot to destroy businesses?

  • Shabir Madhi Madhi says:

    Exemplary of regulations that are in not goig to have any meaningful effect on the trajectory of the Covid epidemic in South Africa. Centred on a misconception that SA is in position to contian spread of the virus, when in reality this was never an optiom for a country such as SA at any stage -even when there was much believe among some that it was achievable with a level-5 lockdown. Circulation of the virus in SA is too well established, and abilty to undertake the type of contract tracing required to “contain” virus transmisison is impossible to acheive in our context (unlike what is possible on isalnd nations such as NZ or Iceland- and few other excpetions), with or without allowing travellers.

    The relative rating of countries risk is simply mis-guided, as most sub-Saharan Africna countries have a tetsing rate of 100-280 per 1,000, so yes they will report more cases (and yes they are having a resurgence). Many other nuances to interpretation of the testing data and number of reported Covid case per country, which does not allow for any meaningful compariosn relative to SA risk.

    Bottom line is that there is little scientific thought or under-standing informing these regulations (not for the first time), and once again rather than this likely to have any meaningful impact on the trajectory of the Covid epidemic in SA, these misconceived regulations simply adds fuel to the fire of inadvertently maximising collateral damage to the contry, its economy and livelihoods of its citizens.

    • Shabir Madhi Madhi says:

      Apoogies -correction to above!! This was incorectly written: “, as most sub-Saharan Africna countries have a tetsing rate of 100-280 per 1,000” . It was menat to read as follows:

      wrongly Most sub-Saharan countries have a testing rate of 100-250 per 1,000 – so will report more cases and be perceived as “high risk” (and some may be actually high rates of infection than SA- [where testing rate is 70 per 1000])

  • Stephen Taylor says:

    Please someone help!!! We need the tourism and business travelers i have had several people asking me what to do ? DIRCO this is today’s job!

  • Paddy Ross says:

    The CEO of Tourism Business Council of South Africa is correct. There is no need to caterogise countries of origin of visitors if the individuals have had bona fide negative tests within the previous seventy two hours. It makes one wonder if the ANC is deliberately trying to hurt tourism in the Western Cape. The politicians making these arbitrary decisions are continuing to receive their overgenerous salaries and perks while those previously employed in the tourism industry are suffering financially.

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