S.Africa tour operators despair at Britain’s flight ban over virus variant

PUBLISHED: Thu, 24 Dec 2020 14:39:59 GMT

JOHANNESBURG, Dec 24 (Reuters) – A British ban on flights from South Africa over a new variant of the coronavirus in the country has punctured hopes of a rebound in the South African tourism industry in the new year, according to frustrated travel operators.

UK officials ordered flights and arrivals from South Africa to be halted on Wednesday after the potentially more infectious variant was found to have reached Britain, which itself is battling to contain another fast-spreading variant.

Tourism is a crucial sector for South Africa, accounting for nearly 9% of its economic output. Britain is the biggest source of tourism to the country, and the decision to halt flights could dent a much-needed recovery, operators said.

“We realized a massive pent-up demand was unfolding for January. But this travel ban is a major setback now,” said Michael Tollman, Group CEO of Cullinan Holdings Ltd.

The ban stigmatises South Africa and hits the industry hard, said Tshifhiwa Tshivhengwa, CEO of Tourism Business Council of South Africa. The council is meeting the tourism minister on Monday to ask the government to raise the issue diplomatically.

South African health authorities say the new variant of the virus, identified last week, is likely behind a surge in COVID-19 infections in the country. The rate of COVID-19 infections will soon surpass the peak hit in the first wave earlier in the year, they warn.

Elaine Zhou and Claudia Pilz, 27-year-old friends who live in London and are in Cape Town on holiday, said they were worried about how they were going to get home following the suspension of flights.

“It’s worrying because there’s no communication about when it will open or when it will change,” said Pilz, an accountant.

“It just says your flight has been cancelled, book again, so you are just literally pressing random days and it’s like ‘no flight, no flight, no flight’.”

(Reporting by Promit Mukherjee and Emma Rumney; Writing by MacDonald Dzirutwe; Editing by Pravin Char)

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