Nica Richards
Deputy online news editor
5 minute read
26 Nov 2021
1:53 pm

Tourism, hospitality industries slam UK’s ‘knee-jerk’ travel ban

Nica Richards

A number of other countries have followed the UK in banning travel to and from South Africa, after a new variant was discovered.

The UK, Malaysia, Singapore, Germany, Italy and Israel have so far banned South Africa after a new variant was discovered. Picture for illustration: iStock

The UK government’s decision to place a temporary travel ban on six African countries, including South Africa, has been branded a “knee-jerk reaction” that “punishes” countries with the capability of finding new variants. 

The B1.1.529 variant has been confirmed in Botswana, South Africa and Hong Kong. In addition to SA and Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Eswatini and Namibia are on the UK’s temporary red list ban. 

Southern Africa Tourism Services Association (Satsa) CEO David Frost said the UK’s premature decision “sends a signal to the world that they don’t believe that their vaccination programme will effectively deal with the variant”. 

ALSO READ: B.1.1.529 variant: Dirco says UK govt rushed decision to place SA on its red list

The country only got removed from the UK’s red list about two months ago.

But the already limping tourism industry was dealt a further blow when Germany and Italy said they, too, would be instituting a travel ban on South Africa and other African countries.

Israel also followed suit, with three suspected cases returning to the country with the variant. Singapore and Malaysia have also restricted arrivals from South Africa and other African countries. 

Vaccines and B1.1.529

Over the last two days, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) recorded an almost double increase in new Covid-19 cases, positivity rate and hospitalisations. 

So far, Frost said Covid-19 vaccines had performed well to reduce virus severity, hospitalisation and death. 

Infectious disease expert Professor Marc Mendelson said there was no indication that current Covid-19 vaccines offered in South Africa, namely Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer, would not work against B1.1.529. 

Wits professor of vaccinology Shabir Madhi said breakthrough infections with first-generation vaccines would remain, and must be accepted. 

ALSO READ: New Covid variant: UK implements travel ban as SA infections surge

“Vaccines are primarily about preventing severe disease and need to ensure we do what it takes to gain the most benefit from it by using it primarily for that purpose. 

“In the case of B1.1.529, we should learn from what transpired with Beta, which also showed resistance to vaccine-induced antibody, which was associated with no protection against mild Covid for the AstraZeneca vaccine. 

“Nevertheless, the vaccine still conferred high protection against severe Covid due to Beta/Gamma in a Canadian study.”

As of Thursday, 22 B1.1.529 cases were detected, with more results due to be available by the end of the week. 

NICD acting executive director professor Adrian Puren said although data was limited, experts were working hard with surveillance systems to understand the new variant, and its potential implications. 

“Developments are occurring at a rapid pace and the public has our assurance that we will keep them up to date.”

Industries slam UK ban 

South Africa’s tourism and hospitality sector generates around 1.5 million direct and indirect jobs, and is the country’s second-largest export.

Frost said the UK was a “key source market”, and the decision to institute another travel ban was “devastating for the tourism industry” – especially during the country’s peak season. 

“We are extremely disappointed at the British government’s decision and trust that science will prevail and that this temporary ban will be lifted swiftly.”

Association of Southern African Travel Agents (Asata) CEO Otto de Vries said the travel ban was “Groundhog Day for the South African travel industry”. 

“The new ban is a knee-jerk reaction of the UK government that puts airlines, hotels, travel businesses and travellers in a very difficult situation.”

De Vries said the world needed to “learn to live with Covid variants”.

ALSO READ: SA removal from UK red list an early Christmas for tourism industry

The Federated Hospitality Association of South Africa (Fedhasa) said it was hopeful the UK’s travel ban remained a “precautionary measure”, and that it would be lifted “swiftly” as new information about B1.1.529 comes to light. 

“[L]ast night’s news by the British government has caused widespread disbelief and disappointment amongst our hospitality industry as we enter our peak festive season period,” Fedhasa national chairperson Rosemary Anderson said. 

“New variants are discovered all the time, often without making any major impact, and we are still hopeful that our advanced scientific capability will find that in this case there is little to worry about. 

“However, that does not mean that this decision by the British government won’t have widespread repercussions, not only by dissuading British travellers to visit South Africa, but also due to the likely spin-off we will see from other key source markets if they take the UK’s lead.”

She highlighted the “unsustainable” situation the UK’s decision placed South Africa in. 

“To be locked down on a semi-regular basis and banned for international travel because of our advanced genomic sequencing capability and low vaccination rates cannot continue. 

“We depend on tourism for jobs and livelihoods,” Anderson said.

She warned the country could not afford a repeat of December 2020, where harsh Covid-19 restrictions made it difficult for restaurants and businesses to make money. 

“Our industry has had to endure being thrust from wave to wave for the past 20 months and it simply isn’t sustainable to keep businesses open and livelihoods intact. 

“It is up to every South African to do their part and help us keep our doors open by complying with the protocols and getting their #jab4tourism.”