Travel bans deal another blow to crippled South African economy

Sudden travel bans imposed on South Africa last week over the omicron variant of the coronavirus have dealt a blow to an already struggling economy, experts say. Unemployment is at half the population and the loss of tourism this month will have a far-reaching impact extending beyond the travel industry.

The Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum, at the center of South Africa‘s anti-apartheid struggle, is normally packed with tourists.

Since the recent discovery of the omicron coronavirus variant, foreign visitors have disappeared. Britain was the first to halt flights to South Africa, with the United States and other countries quickly following suit.

People working in the tourism industry say panic over the new variant is decimating business, just as travel has started to pick up in the past two months.

Wayne Barnes is Director of Sales at MoAfrika Tours.

“When the UK opened up and took us off the red list, we started to see an increase [in] Numbers [of] travelers from all over the world have started to support us again. So their decisions definitely affect, you know, everyone in the world over their decisions, ”he said.

And the decision blinded many.

Barnes said his business lost more than $ 30,000 in refunds in a single day for reservations canceled in December.

Tour guides like Thabang Moleya have gone from groups of over 40 people last week to no one today.

“I’m very hurt right now, not least because things were starting to look like we were starting to function normally, which will remind us of life before COVID,” Moleya said.

A man walks through a deserted section of OR Tambo Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa on November 29, 2021.

It is not just the tourism industry that is suffering.

From vehicle suppliers to website developers, the travel collapse is having a domino effect on the entire economy.

Almost 47% of South Africans were unemployed in the last quarter, according to government statistics released this week.

It is a grim landscape for parents and breadwinners like Thabang Moleya, who face layoffs again.

“At one point, I wanted to get an idea of ​​what we can do. In addition, it was not easy for someone to find a job. I just hope and believe that one day we will work again, the world will travel again, ”Moleya said.

But economists say the recovery is years away.

And the lockdown will only slow down this recovery and make life harder for the poorest.

Dawie Roodt is the Chief Economist of the Efficient Group in Pretoria.

“The biggest killer over there is not a virus or TB or AIDS or whatever, the biggest killer over there is poverty. It might be necessary to prevent larger crowds from getting together and things like that. But you don’t have to be preventing airlines from flying and necessarily preventing people from leaving, stay home. [and] don’t go to work or stay home and not go to the factory and things like that, ”Roodt said.

For those who have managed to hang on to their jobs, like Johannesburg’s tourism ambassador, Mbali Ngema, the situation remains demoralizing.

“Before, you used to wake up in the morning to say I’m going to work, I’m going to see new people, I’m going to meet new people. But because of that, you wake up and you sit down and you don’t do anything, ”Ngema said.

Until scientists gain a better understanding of the omicron variant and politicians change their perspective on travel, South Africans will have to continue to wait for a return to normal life.

Katy F. Molnar