DINOKENG GAME RESERVE, South Africa (AP) — Recent travel bans imposed on South Africa and neighboring countries in response to the discovery of the omicron variant in southern Africa have hammered the country's safari business, already hard hit by the pandemic.
South Africa's tourism industry suffered a more than 70% drop in foreign tourists in 2020, with COVID-19 blamed for the drop from about 15 million visitors in 2019 to less than 5 million in 2020. Tourism employs about 4.7% of South Africa's workforce.
Britain, the largest source of tourists to South Africa, lifted its “red list” travel restrictions on South Africa in October and safari operators were beginning to see an improved outlook for the holiday season and 2022. But then the news of omicron struck, bringing a new round of international restrictions on flights.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has criticized the travel bans imposed by Britain and many others, including some African countries as “hypocritical, harsh and not supported by science.” He denounced the restrictions as “travel apartheid.”
South African safari lodges are experiencing cancellations and few new reservations, said Fred Plachesi, owner of the Tamboti Bush Lodge in the Dinokeng Game Reserve, north of the Tshwane metropolitan area, which includes Pretoria.
With only four guests over the weekend, Plachesi said his business is feeling the damage. He believes the travel bans imposed on South Africa are unfair and will have a negative impact on the people of South Africa.
“I really think it’s very unfair for the country ... it’s the South African people and businesses and that suffer," said Plachesi.
He hopes that many countries will reconsider their flight bans and allow travel to and from South Africa again.
“The year 2022 was looking quite bright because the borders were now open, and everybody was happy," said Plachesi. “We were starting to have confirmations of bookings. It was looking very good.”
But now he is gloomy about the coming year. “After this, omicron, it seems that (a slump) is going to happen again like in 2021,” he said. "So international guests and others then cancel."
Among the few overnight guests at the lodge were South Africans Tebogo Masiu and Smagele Twala, who wanted a break from their schedules in Johannesburg. They said they are dismayed by the new travel restrictions on South Africa.
“For people who are running businesses interlinking South Africa and other countries and raising the economy of South Africa ... that is damaging,” said Masiu, sitting at an empty bar with only his partner and the lodge’s owners for company.
“It’s unfair. They are victimizing us,” Twala said.
With the outlook bleak for 2022, Plachesi and his business partner try to keep the empty rooms ready in the hopes that at least local visitors will embark on a safari tour.