What the Covid vaccine really means for SA travellers and local tourism

The start of a global rollout of vaccines is good news for the travel world, but there are caveats and complications — particularly for Mzansi

07 February 2021 - 00:03 By elizabeth sleith and paula andropoulos
The travel industry has welcomed the vaccines as a positive development.
The travel industry has welcomed the vaccines as a positive development.
Image: Siphu Gqwetha

The pandemic has changed the face of global travel, ruining plans and devastating businesses for much of 2020. Then, late last year, vaccine breakthroughs offered a hint of hope.

As rollouts get going around the world, is this the beginning of the end of the crisis? We look at some of the issues. 

FIRST, CALM DOWN

The travel industry has welcomed the vaccines as a positive development. However, the huge logistical effort and costs required to inoculate the planet mean it will take time for the full benefits to be seen.

Disproportionate distribution also means that rich countries will achieve the goal of herd immunity before the rest. The Economist Intelligence Unit projects that the US and much of Europe can expect this between September and March 2022. But it puts SA in the category of developing countries — along with others including Namibia, Botswana and Tanzania — that will likely only get there in 2022.

The poorest countries — including the rest of Africa — are looking at April 2022 to 2023. In short, whatever travel's “new normal” will look like, it's going to take a while for us to get there and other parts of the world look likely to be enjoying more freedom to travel long before South Africans will.

EARLY DAYS AND UNCERTAINTIES

Even for those who can access the vaccine sooner, complications abound. One of these is an apparent hesitancy in many people to have the vaccine at all.

An Ipsos survey in December found that only 69% of Americans planned on getting the vaccine, while that number was even lower in other parts of the world, for instance, 43% and 40% in France and Russia respectively.

Most crucially for travel, it is not yet clear whether vaccinated people, who themselves are less likely to get sick, can still carry the virus and pass it on. Thus, while the hope in SA is that inbound tourism, at least, might enjoy a boost in vaccinated visitors while we wait for our own rollout, the problem could have implications for our own risks.

At best, the requirement for a negative PCR test on arrival could be with us for a while to come.

BOOSTING BOOKINGS

Countries where rollouts are well under way do have good news for the travel industry.

The UK-based Conde Nast Traveller reports that “the travel world is experiencing a big surge in search and bookings for 2021, with long-haul holidays in the Maldives and Mediterranean beach breaks being particularly popular”.

The magazine quotes George Morgan-Grenville of holiday specialist Red Savannah as saying he'd seen “a significant upturn in inquiries and bookings” and that there is “a distinct feeling that business is on the cusp of a return to normality”.

There have also been reports of a spike in bookings from those at the front of the queue for the jab — older people.

Last month, British holiday company TUI, whose clients are mainly aged 65 and over, reported a 185% increase in bookings compared to this time last year, which it put down to “vaccine confidence”.

JETS FOR JABS

Another emerging trend, at least for the uber-rich, entails travelling to places where they can buy the vaccine. A private club in the UK has been offering holidays to Dubai and India specifically for the shot — with a two-week holiday between the two required doses.

South African billionaire Johann Rupert, 70, caused a stir recently by travelling
to Switzerland for the vaccine before the official launch of that country's inoculation drive.

Florida, one of the first US states to offer a vaccine, had to tighten its rules after people started indulging in a spot of “vaccine tourism” to get it.

A TOURISM EDGE

Another factor to consider is that international travellers may favour destinations where the vaccine has been widely distributed. This is the assumption of Fedhasa, SA's national trade association for the hospitality industry, which in December called on the government to accelerate vaccine deployment, arguing that our “competitiveness as a global tourism destination depends on perceptions of safety for travellers”.

In this regard, some of our neighbours are well on their way to having an edge. Last month, Mauritius launched its vaccination programme, with a stated aim being “the restart of the tourism sector in the safest conditions possible”, according to the Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority. Tellingly, the country has put people who work in tourism at the front of the vaccine queue, along with health workers and the elderly.

The Seychelles, meanwhile, expects to reach herd immunity by March, after which it intends to open its borders to citizens from all countries. In the meantime, anyone who has been vaccinated is welcome to enter — though they still also need a negative PCR test. After a brief opening last year, South Africans were barred from visiting the archipelago on January 1 in light of the discovery of the new Covid-19 variant in SA.

THE PASSPORT CONTROVERSY

Airline trade association Iata announced late last year that it was developing a digital vaccine passport, which would enable travellers to quickly convey their vaccination status and Covid-19 test results with airlines and border authorities.

Though controversial, some operators have introduced immunisation as a prerequisite for travel. The UK-based cruise company Saga Holidays, for example, announced last month that it would allow only vaccinated passengers on board this year. In a similar vein, Qantas CEO Alan Joyce has suggested that vaccines will be “a necessity” for Qantas passengers going forward.

The Qantas CEO has said the airline 'will ask people to have a vaccination before they can get on the aircraft'.
The Qantas CEO has said the airline 'will ask people to have a vaccination before they can get on the aircraft'.
Image: Reuters/Jason Reed/File Photo

Though mandatory vaccinations have been in existence since the 1800s — many countries require proof of yellow-fever vaccination, for example — opponents argue that, for Covid-19, it would be pure discrimination, particularly since many people won't be eligible for months, never mind those who elect not to have it.

World Trade and Tourism Council CEO Gloria Guevara has said that a “blanket vaccination requirement would simply discriminate against non-vulnerable groups, such as generation(s) X, Z and millennials”.

The UK's University of Exeter recently published a study on the human rights implications of such a measure, arguing that “digital health passports may interfere with several fundamental rights, including the right to privacy [and] freedom of movement”. Furthermore, such passports could have an impact on equality and non-discrimination.

“If some people cannot access or afford Covid-19 tests and vaccines, they will not be able to prove their health status, thus having their freedoms de facto restricted.”

Lead researcher Dr Ana Beduschi said that until access is available to all, “digital health passports could further deepen the existing inequalities in society”.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) agrees, saying last month that it is opposed “for the time being” to vaccine passports being a condition for travel as “vaccines are still only available in limited quantities”.

South Africans suffering the stigma of the “South African strain” — a more contagious Covid-19 mutation confirmed here in mid-December — are already finding many countries off limits again and, particularly given our slow rollout, would certainly feel the impact if such a condition for entry were to come into play.

[It's also worth noting that President Cyril Ramaphosa has said that Nobody will be forced to take this vaccine".]

THE SITUATION FOR SA

The new strain and the slow rollout are limiting factors for South Africans, both for our ability to attract foreign tourists as well as the ease with which we can travel to other countries — and even within our own.

As we continue to ride the “corona-coaster” of restrictions being imposed, eased, and imposed again, it's hard to commit to even domestic holiday plans. No doubt this is a factor in a trend noticed by Flight Centre's Andrew Stark, MD Middle East and Africa, who says “85% of customers now book, pay and travel in the same month”, a figure “70% higher than in pre-Covid-19 times”.

People are choosing to stay in remote lodges and off the beaten track, with city escapes like Cape Town being less popular than normal

Neil Markovitz, the CEO of Newmark Hotels, which represents a range of hotels and lodges in SA and elsewhere, notes that “people are choosing to stay in remote lodges and off the beaten track, with city escapes like Cape Town being less popular than normal”.

Julian Asher, founder of UK-based Timeless Africa, with clients in the US and Asia, told the Sunday Times that he has seen “some interesting trends showing up in new bookings”, including longer stays, a focus on single-country itineraries, and “a desire for more time in the bush vs Cape Town”.

NOW FOR THE GOOD NEWS

Despite the long wait we're facing for herd immunity, experts in SA agree we shouldn't let it deter us from looking to get away. After all, we have a world of wonders on our doorstep and a host of businesses eager to share them.

Flight Centre's Stark predicts that “domestic or closer-to-home travel on both the business and leisure fronts will remain in high demand for the next two years” and that “leisure travel will boom before corporate travel”.

Though not addressing the vaccine specifically, Norwegian Cruise Line's Nick Wilkinson, regional vice-president of business development Middle East & Africa, said they were seeing “great pent-up demand for cruising in SA”, with positive booking numbers for 2021, 2022 and even 2023. Popular destinations booked include Europe, particularly the Mediterranean and Baltic, as well as Asia and Alaska, he said.

The MSC Grandiosa has been cruising safely in Europe since August 2020.
The MSC Grandiosa has been cruising safely in Europe since August 2020.
Image: MSC

Ross Volk, MD of MSC Cruises SA, similarly said the wait for a vaccine should not be a deterrent to travel as there were already sufficient measures in place to allow people to cruise safely, as MSC has shown since August.

“There are a range of proven measures — based upon our first-hand experience since we returned safely to the waters in August 2020 in Europe — that can be done effectively before vaccines become readily available,” Volk said. Most importantly, “rigorous and timely Covid-19 testing of all guests and crew prior to embarkation will continue to have a greater impact in the short and medium term”.

WASH, RINSE, REPEAT

As it urged nations to refrain from demanding “vaccination passports”, the WHO last month stressed the basic “early days” argument — that there are uncertainties regarding the effectiveness of vaccination. Crucially, “being vaccinated should not exempt international travellers from complying with other risk-reduction measures”, it said.

Whether vaccinated or not, the onus remains on all of us to keep up the strange customs we've adopted in the past year: social distancing, hand washing, mask wearing.

As Stark reminds us, “While it doesn't feel like it for many, we are better placed today than we were in March 2020.” Everything we went through last year — from lockdowns to homeschooling to travel restrictions — has left us “better equipped to deal with what lies ahead”, he said.

Indeed, the road may be rocky, but it is a road nevertheless and one to travel by.


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