NOMPU SIZIBA: In less than an hour, President Cyril Ramaphosa is going to take the nation into his confidence and let us know where to next for the economy. Leaks here and there suggest that he is set to announce the move to Level 1 of the lockdown, which will further ease restrictions on economic activity. But the devil will be in the detail as to the extent to which this is done. As we rub our hands in anticipation, members of the aviation sector have been meeting to call for the borders to be opened so that international flights can begin, and the associated business that comes with that can kick off.
Well, to discuss this further I’m joined on the line by Gillian Saunders. She’s an independent tourism economist and analyst. Thank you so much, Gillian, for joining us. It’s been many years since I last interviewed you, when you were at one of the consulting houses. How are you doing?
GILLIAN SAUNDERS: I’m doing well, thank you, Nompu. And it is a long time. I am no longer with Grant Thornton, but I was with them for 30 years.
NOMPU SIZIBA: Wow. South Africa is ready, travel ready collective. It’s hosting a discussion with the Airline Association of Southern Africa and other aviation players, including Ethiopian airlines and Etihad. And they’re basically calling for our international borders to be opened up, to get that much-needed inbound tourism coming in. So, essentially, what are the key themes that are being discussed there?
GILLIAN SAUNDERS: Well, I think key is that we need to open up all of our international borders. It’s not worth doing it in a phased approach. And, when we look at that, there’s no reason from a pandemic or public health perspective to treat somebody from Botswana or somebody from Kenya differently from anybody from Germany, the UK or China.
So it’s really about, if the country would like to, looking at perhaps very high-risk countries and putting different protocols in place, such as quarantine for a very high-risk countries, Covid testing for medium–risk countries, and no protocols specifically in terms of ability to come across our borders and get to South Africa, for people from low-risk countries.
So we would like to see everything opened because there’s an interconnectedness between the airline industry that brings people to and from Africa, and people to and from overseas, overseas tourists. About 600 000 of our overseas visitors each year travel into the rest of the continent, largely by air. That’s nearly a 100 000 packs a day. Numerous people travel from the continent to Joburg, to travel out to other international destinations. And the airlines – both South African based and on the continent, such as Ethiopian airlines – need the international transport or the international connection into the continent, as well as the regional connectivity. Both can’t work without the other.
NOMPU SIZIBA: And the interesting thing is that we as a country are really looking for foreign direct investment, and people aren’t going to invest if they can’t come and inspect where they’re going to invest.
GILLIAN SAUNDERS: Exactly. I think people often think of tourism as leisure tourism, but tourism is bringing …… to this country. And that includes business travellers. So all our b2b, from our export sectors. And exports are a vitally important sector. Think of the growth in agricultural exports – that is facilitated by business travellers, leaders and researchers going to and from South Africa to other key countries. And STI …… the kind that makes investments as well. People need to come and see what they’re investing in if they’re going to bring their money into this country.
And then perhaps the last thing just to say, we are the second-biggest export industry in the country. We bring in R120 billion a year at the last measure, which was 2018, as foreign exchange to South Africa. And we are very happy to sell our diamonds and our gold to foreigners, and we need to be equally as happy to sell our tourism assets to foreigners as well.
NOMPU SIZIBA: (Chuckles) So if the President announces that the borders and the aviation industry can get going by, let’s say, October 1, is it all systems go? I mean, will the tourism sector be ready? It’s not exactly going to be business as usual, because we’re now so much more conscious, and need to stay conscious, about this virus.
GILLIAN SAUNDERS : We are definitely constantly ready. Since April and in early May, we developed the first set of our extremely comprehensive tourism industry operating protocols for the Covid era. They were reviewed by an epidemiologist back then. They’d been accredited by the World Travel and Tourism Council, and they really cover the entire tourism value chain.
And the airline industry is well known for having extremely good protocols for dealing with passengers in terms of disease and potential disease, and all the rigorous protocols at airports and on aeroplanes. So we’re very confident that we can operate safely. And we are perhaps lucky that we’ve had the opportunity to work initially with essential workers and business travellers, and then more latterly, for the last six weeks, domestic leisure travellers to test those protocols in the industry here. And we have repatriation flights going. So the airports have worked, the airlines have worked, the industry has been operating and knows how to operate safely.
NOMPU SIZIBA: We know that South Africa is arguably one of the most beautiful countries in the world. You can open up the borders tomorrow. Restaurants were opened up some weeks back. But of course the question is, will there be the appetite for people to travel and come over?
GILLIAN SAUNDERS: Well, certainly I think not everybody’s going to want to travel straight away, but there’ve been enough surveys overseas in different markets in different countries, in the US and Germany and Europe, to show that there’s a number of people who would like to travel. Not all people would be happy to travel this year. And in fact, quite often, when asked where they would like to travel, South Africa comes out as number one or two as a preferred destination, because those that know the destination realise that we actually operate in wide open spaces, in game reserves, in mountain areas, along very wilderness stretches of coastline. We’re not a crowded night club or a crowded beach destination.
So they understand that we’re going to be going through our summer months as well. Life will be an outdoor life, which is a much safer and easier place to feel that you can do the distancing, with less COVID risk.
NOMPU SIZIBA: Well, let’s hope the President is going to answer your prayers, so to speak. But then, as we look forward, just tell us about your reflections in the past, with many jobs being lost. Will they be able to be created again, or will people be able to go back to their jobs – or are there parts of the tourism industry that have been damaged for a very long time to come?
GILLIAN SAUNDERS: I think some businesses have already closed their doors for good. We’ve heard some stories about some in the restaurant industry. We know of guest houses and hotels that have closed for good. Unfortunately some didn’t have the cashflow to survive – because it’s been effectively six months. And we were feeling it in our industry with cancellations and nervousness from travellers before lockdown. The Chinese market, for instance, which is 100 000 people, had already dropped off totally. So it’s been very, very tough. It hasn’t been doing a small amount of business – there has been no business for most of this time.
But the industry is resilient. We employ about 726 000 people directly. And in total in the economy we represent 1.5 million people’s jobs. We think that that’s gone down to 600 or 700 (000), and 600 000 people on the terms and benefits from the tourism industry at one point. So we know that there’s been a lot of challenge and a lot of jobs have been lost. A lot of people have been laid off. I know businesses where some people can only afford to pay them 10% salaries, although normally it’s more like 50 to 60% that’s been paid. So it’s been very bad. And we just hope the recovery can be as fast as possible, but we don’t expect it to sort of become pre-Covid levels for another two to three years.
NOMPU SIZIBA: Gillian, thank you so much. Lovely talking to you. That was Jillian Saunders, an independent tourism economist and analyst.