I’ve seen on social media and WhatsApp that winter in Cape Town came early this year. Clouds, rain and wind are lashing the empty highways and supermarket queues, and at this rate, I worry that when the new lockdown order is lifted, not only the weather, but also the people, will be brooding and grey.
Winter is coming, but there’s still no way to tell when I’ll get to experience it, because as a US passport holder (with a South African permanent residency visa), I’ve been banned from entering SA since March 18. I’m lucky enough to be able to shelter with my family in Detroit, and accept and acknowledge the weird, unprecedented situation the whole world has found ourselves in. Of course, I wonder when I’ll be able to return “home”, but there’s way more at stake than just my feelings – international travel is a key component of the international economy, and hugely important for South Africa.
In 2018 South Africa derived 2.8% of its GDP directly, and 8.2% of its GDP indirectly, from the travel and tourism sector. Travellers and tourists spent more than R425-billion in 2018 – the most in Africa. Even more compelling than that, 4.2% of jobs directly and 9.2% of jobs indirectly in the country are in the travel and tourism sector. That’s almost one in 10 jobs; guides, hotel staff, cooks, and drivers. These are the type of middle-income jobs crucial to South Africa’s economic engine.
International travellers, mostly from Europe, account for about 44% of this spend compared to domestic holidaymakers, meaning international travel restrictions and travel bans will hit the economy incredibly hard. The government has set May 1 as the end date for the lockdown, but there’s no expiration date on the travel ban, nor is there guidance on when air travel will resume.
That’s why we should push for a safe, secure travel policy now, in preparation for an eventual reopening. This policy should be done with public health as the primary concern, with the ultimate goal of a return to business with no new transmissions of Covid-19.
Here are three components of a sensible travel policy that could form the foundation for a safe reopening of the country:
- The government should immediately implement a strategy of 100% testing for all incoming travellers, with mandatory quarantine until a negative result is achieved (Japan is already doing this). There are new rapid testing kits available which cut down the testing time to just 15 minutes, and perhaps in the future immediate tests will become available (this will probably become standard for all future air travel). South Africa is one of the few countries on the continent to have the capacity to make this happen.
- A national track-and-trace programme should be rolled out which all mobile phone users, including international travellers, will be asked to opt into. Any track-and-trace programme should be secured against privacy and anonymised, for example the PACT protocol being developed by MIT.
- Each traveller, regardless of type of visa or duration of stay, should be required to produce evidence of an international medical policy and proof of funds for medical care should they arise. Currently visitors do not need to provide proof of medical cover to visit South Africa.
These standards would work towards a claim that South Africa is the most prepared country on the continent in dealing with the pandemic and would bring confidence and trust to its international reputation. Africa, and specifically South Africa, is lucky that so far it has upended the rather dire predictions that people had speculated for the spread of the virus. Now is the time to go even further and lead the continent with a plan to achieve a safe reopening of the economy.
Luckily, the country is well positioned to reopen quickly and in a favourable position relative to other travel destinations in the region and globally:
- A weakened rand (currently at R18/$1) will make South Africa a desirable destination for international travellers spending foreign currencies;
- A relatively low number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in the country and a strong government response mean that South Africa is a “safe” destination;
- Rock-bottom oil prices will keep fuel prices low for domestic travel and offset some increases in international airfares;
- Healthcare infrastructure and pre-existing capacity exists for rapid testing to occur at international ports of entry; and
- South Africa still has world-class infrastructure, destinations, and nonstop flight routes to many major cities around the world.
Getting the economy up and running as soon as possible will help South Africa to ameliorate the inevitable recession due to Covid-19. International travel isn’t just a luxury for the rich – it’s a vital driver of international trade, domestic jobs and income. South Africa literally cannot afford to close its borders for long. Let’s make sure that when they open, we’re ready. DM