African states navigate paths to ‘open skies’… & doors

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Although many governments continue to advise against ‘nonessential’ international travel, a host of African destinations have begun the easing of COVID-19 border restrictions in a bid to welcome international travellers and reignite tourism and hotel industries.

Whilst most African countries closed international borders in March (following WHO advice to limit the spread of the virus), the continent remains the least affected by COVID-19, with fewer victims and deaths in comparison to Europe, Asia or America. The time is therefore nigh for many of these nations to reopen international flights, indeed for business travel as a minimum, though clearly not without precautions.

Below I summarise standings in some of the key African regions at present. These are, naturally, subject to change, given the unpredictable nature of the virus and the fact that infections have yet to peak in some areas.

Africa: A Mixed-Case Scenario

Positive news is that, since 1 August, airport reopenings have accelerated in several countries across the continent, particularly in West Africa, which has seen the largest resumption of commercial flights.

Despite having their international borders open for weeks however, East African countries such as Tanzania and Rwanda are still seeing slow growth in tourist numbers. This may be due to the fact that the offering is mainly high-end safari based which might just be out of the reach of some travellers at this time, and something that others may want to plan for another time.

A further obstacle to increased tourism numbers is potentially a lack of faith in some countries’ abilities to properly manage the health and safety protocols around COVID-19. This is bound to influence source markets’ travel decisions. It is also problematic that East Africa is very reliant on North America as a source market, as well as India, which are both struggling with COVID numbers.

West Africa

One of the top economies in West Africa, The Ivory Coast was the first country to reopen borders in mid-July after three months of closure. Air France, Corsair and further international airlines have reopened their routes to the destination, albeit with limited flights. A completed ‘Health Declaration Form’ is required to be submitted prior to departure and travellers remain subject to PCR tests on arrivals. The Radisson, Pullman, Sofitel, Onomo and Azalai are amongst those hotel groups currently operating in the country.

Nigerian airports reopened to domestic travel 11 July, albeit with limited connections. Radisson Blu, Sheraton, Protea, Golden Tulip, The George and Fraser Suites are all operating, though international travellers only recently received the opening date of 29 August for travel to resume.

Neighbouring country Ghana announced 13 August as its date for welcoming international travel. Hotels doors currently open here include those of Movenpick, Marriott, Kempinski, Golden Tulip, Best Western, and Ibis.

East Africa

After months of shuttering, East African countries are progressively joining the rest of the world in opening up. Nevertheless, information relative to the opening of borders remains limited and unreliable as governments adopt a ‘wait and see’ approach and follow the lead of other global nations.

Ethiopia, on the other hand, an important gateway to the continent, made a choice to never fully close its international borders. In July, the 14-day mandatory quarantine for inbound travellers was cut to as little as three days for some. Hotel groups currently operating include Sheraton, Golden Tulip, Hyatt, Hilton, Marriott, Skylight hotel, Getfam, Capital, Saphir and Elilly International.

Already impacted by a decrease in tourism arrivals and cancellations due to the early appearance of the virus in China and Europe, Kenya and Tanzania were hard hit in January and February, prior to their official boarder closure. Nairobi’s airport official reopening was delayed to 1 Aug, accompanied by a vigilant attitude and possible new lockdown pending in the face of an increase in infections. Kenyan hotels currently operating include Radisson Blu, Kempinski, Crowne Plaza, Sarova, Concorde, Movenpick and Four Points amongst others.

Tanzania has been widely critised for its controversial handling of the pandemic, having declared itself COVID-free in June and not willing to provide updated statistics to health organisations. Authorities have not released official figures since beginning of May, increasing concern over the true extent numbers of infections. On the other hand, Rwanda’s positive efforts to grow tourism in the last few years appear to have helped it plan a quicker recovery (in comparison to surrounding countries), with commercial flights having resumed in July.

Southern Africa

While Botswana closed international boarders in late March, no opening dates have yet been released and there are currently no commercial flights either in or out of Botswana. According to the WHO, Botswana is one of the least impacted countries in Africa, recording only three deaths as of 31 August.

Mozambique is gradually opening its international boarders post lockdown through to October. The country is, however, only allowing nationals and individuals with valid residency. Mozambique’s civil aviation authority has suspended international passenger flights and the state of emergency has been extended until 30 September.

South Africa has recorded the fifth highest number of COVID-19 cases in the world as of mid-August. Sadly, it has passed the milestone of 10,000 Coronavirus deaths since the epidemic appeared in country in March and has recorded more than 550,000 cases, representing more than half of those seen across the continent.

The nation’s tourism industry has been decimated both due to the pandemic and the implementation of some the most restrictive lockdown regulations globally. The ‘silver lining’ is that the country has seen a rapid decline in COVID cases since the beginning of August. Inter-provincial travel has finally opened up and given a much-needed lifeline to hotel and guest accommodation. However, there remains much speculation as to when its borders will open to international tourists. This date should hopefully arrive sooner rather than later in order to enable the country to rebuild its embattled travel sector.

Conclusion

The UNWTO suggests that international travel to Africa was on an upward trajectory prior to the pandemic, with 6% growth reported between January and May 2019. This year, for the same period, international arrivals (which contribute 7,1% of African GDP and support millions of jobs) contracted to minus 47%.

It goes without saying that country borders need to open as swiftly as possible in order to provide tourism sectors with a fighting chance to recover. However, this requires a multi-phased approach as well as the establishment of new procedures at borders and entry points. Those procedures need to be well designed and address all eventualities in a pragmatic way. Destinations need to protect travellers, employees and host populations. To do that they need to address risks across the entire tourism ecosystem and even now, with a brighter light at the end of the tunnel, this cannot be achieved overnight.