The business of SA’s open borders



The big news of the reopening of South Africa’s international borders from 1 October 2020 means that business travellers to the continent’s most industrialised country are now able to enjoy more freedom than they have in the last six months. Leisure travellers, however, remain significantly restricted due to South Africa’s extensive travel-ban list.

Truly sobering for SA’s travel and tourism sector is that the countries on it’s so-called ‘red’ travel-ban list represent 62% of overseas arrivals and include the key source markets of the UK and USA (together making up 31% of SA’s overseas arrivals) that have historically underpinned the tourist traffic of, what is now, a deeply struggling economy. The concern is that, should this banning continue for a prolonged period, it will cause yet further detrimental impact to the recovery of the tourism sector and result in further job losses and business closures.

Despite this, I believe there exist signs of opportunity amid the current climate of uncertainty. A silver lining lies in the fact that the list of countries from which leisure travellers are not welcome does not apply to those travelling for business. Policymakers appear to agree that SA needs all the economic activity it can get!

But it’s also important to note that no African market is currently on South Africa’s banned list and that 18 land borders have been opened in order to allow ease of travel from the African countries. Travellers from all African countries are allowed entry, must possess relevant travel documents and produce and a 72-hour PCR test at all ports of entry, and will be screened for COVID-19 symptoms.

In addition to this, COVID-19 infection rates have been less prevalent across the continent than initially expected and, taking into account the somewhat alarming growth in number of virus cases internationally, there is likely to be real hesitation for African travellers to venture to foreign shores. I believe the opportunity to promote intra-African travel, particularly to South Africa, is therefore a significant one for which there will likely exist only a small window.

South Africa does benefit from high levels of demand from African travellers (7.6 million in 2019), with 98% of these from the SADC region. SADC visitors predominantly visit friends and relatives (VFR) and travel for personal or business shopping – all having an extremely positive impact on the country’s economy.

We see that the pandemic now provides an opportunity for the sector to re-evaluate its marketing and pricing and to diversify its strategies to better appeal to these African travellers.

Within the SADC region, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho and Botswana represent the largest African source markets for South Africa (76% of arrivals) and, whilst a large proportion of these are considered ‘shoppers’, an increasing proportion (particularly in Mozambique), represent a growing middle class with an increasing appetite for travel. This shouldn’t be overlooked. Indeed, in the past days few days we, at HTI Consulting, have witnessed a growing number of SA-based safari destinations offering SADC rates.

Further afield, Angola and Nigeria currently have the greatest percentage penetration into the leisure market at 29% and 18.9% (though the actual volumes from these markets have been small – less than 100,000 visitors from both countries). Nigeria and Ghana also have a rapidly growing middle class. Further opportunity therefore exists for SA’s travel and tourism industry to penetrate these markets and take full use of the opportunity the weak South African Rand brings.

Targeted marketing within these countries could drive a higher level of demand and a focus on growing the intra-continental travel market (from both a business and leisure perspective) should now be a priority for hoteliers and tourism business alike. Especially as travellers from these markets, who historically undertake yearly international overseas leisure travel trips would now likely look to substitute these for “safer” destinations within the continent.

One of the primary challenges, however, will be airlift. African connectivity remains limited and, whilst foreign airlines have demonstrated a commitment to return to South Africa, including Emirates, Ethiopian Airlines and Lufthansa, there is still much uncertainty around the fate of struggling national carrier South African Airways.

Furthermore, many airlines initially expressed concern about regulations applying to their crew members, with the threat that an entire crew could be forced to quarantine in SA if a member tested positive after showing COVID symptoms. In a related development (though the issues have not been officially linked) airlines have now been told that SA’s strict coronavirus testing regime will not apply to air crew.

Now too, more than ever, I believe that airlines will need to more frequently look at new routes and new partnerships with other airlines and airports to encourage and create intra-continental travel. We can’t expect that COVID is the last issue that may cause a pause in travel, and companies have now seen that solely relying on international travellers is not sustainable business practice.

As passenger confidence returns and the industry demonstrates a successful mitigation of risks associated with disease transmission, holiday and tourism travel will follow on from business travel. We expect that South Africans will first start travelling for leisure to regional favourites such as the SADC countries and popular Indian Ocean islands like Zanzibar, Mauritius and Seychelles – and we’ll witness a similar trend for the rest of the continent.

Ultimately though, African countries need to focus on intra-African travel to ensure a quicker post-COVID recovery, as international tourism is the last phase of a staggered upturn of the tourism sector. During these unprecedented times, the focus must be on continually adapting and seeking out opportunities in new and existing markets often previously overlooked. This strategy could prove to be the lifeblood of the industry and ultimately shape it’s recovery as it holds out for that time when markets and travel return to normalisation.