The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently reduced South Africa’s COVID-19 risk level from ‘Level 4: COVID-19 Very High’ to its ‘Level 3: COVID-19 High’ category, but opinions are divided on whether this will inspire enough travellers to return to South Africa to make a notable change in inbound travel numbers.

“The reclassification to a lower risk level bodes well for the industry, and mirrors what other source markets like Germany and the Netherlands have done,” Onne Vegter, MD of Wild Wings Safaris, points out.

“This will almost certainly have an impact on US tourist numbers, particularly as it coincides with a notable drop in Omicron case numbers in the US itself. Many people have been too nervous to travel during the last two years, even when it was technically possible to travel. This should encourage our US market to start looking at South Africa as a destination again.”

Suzanne Benadie, Sales Director at Sense of Africa, agrees: “The change is definitely positive as it allows many tour operators to have the go-ahead to market and sell the destination again. When we were in the Level 4 category, they may not have had such easy access to things like insurance cover – but when levels are adjusted, they can up their sales and marketing efforts.”

On the other hand, others expect US travellers to still be slightly wary about planning trips to South Africa until the classification is reduced by another level.

“The news is obviously positive but it is not going to spur people on to just jump on a plane and come to Africa. There will not be any floods of visitors overnight – we need to bring it one more step down,” says Yolanda Woeke, VP of Dragonfly Africa.

This opinion was shared by Rosemary Anderson, FEDHASA National Chairperson, who stresses that the biggest challenge to inbound tourism still remains the requirement for a negative PCR test result for vaccinated travellers – and not just for travellers originating from the US.

PCR testing remains a major obstacle

“The main deterrent is where we are distinctively discouraging international inbound travel through our government-legislated, compulsory PCR test when entering South Africa,” Anderson says.

“It would make it far easier for our main inbound markets to visit us [if we removed this regulation], since their populations are generally fully vaccinated. It is nonsensical that we still have the PCR test requirement, but simultaneously do not require a COVID-positive person who is asymptomatic to self-isolate. As FEDHASA, we implore Government to lift this urgently.”

In terms of barriers to tourism that are specific to US travellers, Anderson points out that “the CDC’s regular chopping and changing, prohibiting and then allowing travel to a country, has created uncertainty”.

The one thing that is necessary for international travel, especially long-haul flights, is certainty, Anderson maintains. “We cannot control the uncertainty that has been created in America and by COVID, but we can try to make it as easy as possible for the few who still have confidence to travel to visit South Africa. Namely, we need to remove the PCR test requirement. It adds significant stress, uncertainty and travel logistics admin.”

Lobbying for the removal of PCR testing for fully vaccinated arrivals to South Africa has been ongoing throughout the industry, particularly from the Tourism Business Council of South Africa (TBCSA).

“It is very clear now that travel bans and PCR testing have not been able to stop Omicron from spreading, and imported cases are not a significant public health risk. I agree with the TBCSA’s view that we need to scrap PCR testing for arriving tourists as soon as possible, as it remains a huge deterrent to travel,” says Vegter.

Benadie is one of many in the industry who echo this. “Clients typically love to combine iconic destinations within southern Africa: Cape Town, the Kruger, the Delta, Vic Falls – multi-country itineraries are very popular. But there is a lot of hesitation to go ahead with trips with so many PCR requirements at the moment. Clients are concerned that their trips will be interrupted, even though most are fully vaccinated and even boosted,” Benadie explains.

More air access?

Delta Air Lines recently applied to the US Department of Transport for the rights to operate a direct service from Atlanta to Cape Town and United Airlines is to launch its thrice-weekly service between Newark and Cape Town in June.

“This is earlier than it had initially planned,” James Vos, City of Cape Town’s Mayoral Committee Member for Economic Growth, points out.

“That signals a high rate of interest from US travellers to our part of the world. With a year-round service, the route is expected to generate R523m (€30.4m) in direct tourism spend within its first year of operation.

“Through the Cape Town Air Access initiative, which receives funding from the City, we are constantly engaging with airlines to land more routes to Cape Town. So while I can’t confirm anything yet beyond this, there are constant engagements,” he adds.