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US lifts travel bans for vaccinated South Africans

‘We should just make sure that for those who will require the visas, the e-visa system is up and running and working smoothly’: Tshifhiwa Tshivhengwa – CEO, TBCSA

FIFI PETERS: We are discussing all things travel now. It has been quite an interesting couple of days for the sector. On Friday night the UK turned us down in terms of lifting SA from the red list and taking us to the amber list. But we’ve had some good news coming out of the US, which now says that fully vaccinated South Africans will be able to resume travel to America as from some time in November. This is after the country plans to ease travel restrictions put in place about 18 months ago to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in that country, I think the biggest country hit by the pandemic.

But we’ll speak about what this lifting of the US restrictions does mean for business travel with Tshifhiwa Tshivhengwa, CEO at the Tourism Business Council of South Africa. Tshifhiwa, thanks so much for your time. I imagine that this announcement must have come with some relief. How important is the US market for business travel in South Africa?

TSHIFHIWA TSHIVHENGWA: Well, this is a very important market, and thank you for having me. A very good evening to you and to your listeners. It’s a very important market. If you look at it from a tourism point and from a business point of view, the ties between South Africa and the US are well known. We do receive a substantial number of tourists who come to South Africa from the USA.

This is the third-largest market in terms of arrivals and it does spend a significant amount of money here in South Africa under the value chain. So it’s a significant market and the news that South Africans can now travel to the US is also significant because, when you’re dealing with issues of travel, you want these planes that are coming into South Africa to also go back with enough people to sustain themselves and also to sustain the route.

So it’s quite important that we have the movement of people between the two countries. We’ve had United Airlines flying into South Africa – that shows confidence to the market. And we have Delta Airlines showing confidence to the market; and I’m sure South Africa soon will be looking at resuming their flights to New York and to Washington DC. These are the routes that are quite important. We want more Americans to come to South Africa to spend, to make sure that our employees can go back to work.

FIFI PETERS: Do you know when exactly in November things can get back to usual in terms of travel?

TSHIFHIWA TSHIVHENGWA: Well, what’s going to happen is that at the beginning of November South Africans will be able to travel to the US. But we need to solve some things here at home – to make sure that the embassy here or the US consul generals around South Africa, or the US consul generals, are able to issue the visas for those who want visas. There are many people who want to go to the road shows in the US or business meetings in the US, and the visas can be issued. That goes a long way because a lot more people want to travel, and they need to growth their markets. So at the beginning of November it is critical for us that they begin.

But it’s going to take some time to pick up. Next week we’ll see the airlines starting to add more frequency, especially the likes of United or SAA coming on board. It will show us that there is more demand coming through. And of course, travel trade – meaning the tour operators – will start to see the forward bookings starting to pick up. So we are expecting that the USA and Canada will start to give us some of the numbers we’ve been looking for.

We’ll start to see some recovery coming in, and we’ll start to put meaning to the recovery strategy we put together. The same will apply to Germany, Netherlands, and other countries that have opened for South Africa.

FIFI PETERS: This may or may not be a question for you in terms of the readiness of our Home Affairs to quickly adapt and ensure a smooth process in allowing such travel to ease and resume as quickly as possible, but have you had any indication or heard anything that Home Affairs is ready?

TSHIFHIWA TSHIVHENGWA: Well, we do interact with Home Affairs quite often to talk about issues of mutual interest that make travel smooth. We do hope that in these discussions that we’re having everything will be smooth. I think all the staff is always there and they should be ready to receive tourists.

We should just make sure that for those that will require the visas, the e-visa system is up and running and is working smoothly. And we should also make sure that our consulates in the US and Canada are able to issue visas for those who require a visa to travel. We do know that US citizens and Canadian citizens don’t require visas, but there are others that may require a visa to come to South Africa. So it’s all hands on deck, and we need to make sure of the transition when they arrive at the airports, and that they’re able to do tourism and sustain our livelihoods.

FIFI PETERS: Does it matter which vaccine you used? I remember at one stage there were concerns around discrimination against vaccines, and which vaccines Western countries would allow to enter into their countries in terms of citizens who had been jabbed. Have you heard any indication that there will be that level of discrimination?

TSHIFHIWA TSHIVHENGWA: We haven’t had indications in terms of that information, but we do know that that’s something that we need to know, that there are different types of delays in terms of which one is more effective and which one is not. And we do hope that the World Health Organisation’s criteria in terms of approving the vaccine that needs to be applied, needs to be applied – otherwise why do we have the World Health Organisation, WHO?

Those vaccines that have been approved by the WHO should be able to be acceptable to any country for those who are travelling. If we have a situation that says that if you’ve been vaccinated with vaccine A you are not allowed to travel, it will be problematic. It will render the multilateral institutions that we have unable to be trusted in terms of the decisions that they take.

So it’s quite important that we don’t get to that. We need to work in solidarity across the globe to make sure that we succeed all together.

FIFI PETERS: And then how big of a blow was the announcement from the UK that South Africa would remain on the red list?

TSHIFHIWA TSHIVHENGWA: Well, we were not expecting that type of an announcement; we were expecting that there would be relief, and we were expecting that we’d start to get our forward book from the UK to look better, and that the groups who want to come through would start to make their arrangements, and those who want to visit friends and relatives would make arrangements. So it is rather disappointing – the decision that has been made.

That’s what we’ve been saying – we wouldn’t believe it’s science-based; we believe that we’ve done whatever we can do in terms of managing the pandemic, and we should have been open, and we should be open, and it’s a matter of time. That’s why we say the president needs to get involved. It’s up to the prime minister. Yes the scientists need to get involved because there has to be a scientific discussion between the two countries. But there have been many reports that have been put together in terms of the Beta, variant, the Delta variant, the efficacy of vaccines. Let’s use the report that had been put together by the very same people to make sure that we arrive at conclusions that are sound.

FIFI PETERS: Just one last question on the outlook for business travel. I thought that the business industry was quite used to conferencing and meeting via the Zooms and the Teams and all the other platforms that have enabled business to go on unusually. And I thought that perhaps that wouldn’t be a spring-up in business demand again. What are you seeing in your books?

TSHIFHIWA TSHIVHENGWA: Well, we think that people want to meet face to face. There’s nothing that can replace that face-to-face meeting and being able to conclude what you need to conclude. The restriction in terms of the number of people that can meet has had a devastating impact on the events industry. We believe that we should be able to do more numbers. We are ready, we have put protocols together and we should be able to get higher numbers of people meeting, especially those who are vaccinated; we should get to that point.

There has been devastation from the business side. If you look at domestic corporate travel, you will see that there isn’t much that’s happening, including government travel, because people are not having those meetings. So we are encouraging corporates and governments to just start travelling, especially here at home. And then we can encourage international business travel to resume. We can then have events; sporting events as an example contribute hugely today to the hospitality industry and the tourism industry.

So we should be able to resume, and we should be able to have people who are vaccinated go to the stadium and enjoy a game of whatever sport they like.

FIFI PETERS: I agree with you and I hope that day comes sooner rather than later. But we’ll leave it there. Thanks so much for joining the show. Tshifhiwa Tshivhengwa, the CEO of the Tourism Business Council of South Africa.

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