Africa-Press – Botswana. Throughout the final month of 2021, South African travel and tourism took a substantial hit due to the emergence of the Omicron variant and subsequent restrictions. Bookings dropped by 85% compared to November. Airlines saw net negative ticket revenue for ten consecutive days, which hadn’t happened since the beginning of the crisis. However, recent trends of recovery give cause for optimism.
Controversial bans over variant of concern
Today, most evidence points to Omicron, while more contagious, being milder than Delta, resulting in fewer hospitalizations. However, little was still known when the variant was discovered in South Africa at the end of November last year.
The WHO labeled it a ‘variant of concern’ and governments around the globe issued controversial knee-jerk travel restrictions affecting South Africa and neighboring countries. Within two weeks, at least 90 countries had instated severe limitations on flights from the region, with five completely shutting their borders.
The European Union lifted restrictions on flights from southern Africa only yesterday, January 10th, over a month after instating them. The US removed its entry ban on non-US citizens traveling from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi on December 31st.
The UK was quicker, removing its red list restrictions on December 15th. However, while the restrictions were in place, they had time to severely damage airline finances and South African tourism.
Ten very rough days
Within the first two days of restrictions, South Africa’s tourism and hospitality industry lost close to $64 million. Bookings to South Africa dropped by a whopping 85% throughout the last month of the year compared to the month prior. After a surge of cancelations and refunds, airlines saw net negative bookings for several consecutive days at the beginning of December.
“There are net negative bookings [fall below -100%] for roughly ten consecutive days in early December, which is worse than the total,” an IATA spokesperson told Business Insider South Africa.
Net negative bookings (when refunds exceed ticket revenue) are, fortunately, an infrequent occurrence. The last time it happened was during the height of the initial stages of the pandemic in March and April 2020.
Good news in the medium term
Meanwhile, across the globe, December was the best month of the year for the aviation industry. While the variant is still causing cancellations worldwide, including North and South America, Asia, and Oceania, IATA looks to South Africa’s current recovery trend as a sign of optimism and of that, perhaps, we are learning to live with the virus – as much as we wish we didn’t have to.
“More broadly, South Africa’s experience with Omicron points to the pandemic possibly becoming endemic, with a reduced impact on human activities as the virus continues to mutate. This would be good news for aviation in the medium term,” IATA said in a report released at the end of last week.