The reopening of international travel hinges largely on SA successfully ramping up its vaccination programme and the private sector standing by to help.
Much has been written about the glacial pace at which our vaccine rollout appears to be progressing. The slower the rollout, the longer the recovery of our travel sector, and its deep supply chain, which has already haemorrhaged hundreds of thousands of jobs with many more at risk if we don’t push the reset button, throw the rule book out the window and make the Herculean effort to get those shots into arms.
The only way to give our international source markets — travellers and airlines — confidence in reopening the door to SA is to have upwards of 40-million people vaccinated, and fast. We’ve started slow, but I have hope that we can play the leading role we should on the continent and ramp it up swiftly.
For that to happen, we need some new thinking.
In a world where businesses have been forced to push the reset button, do things differently and fast forward many years ahead, we can’t afford to go back to business as usual. We see this as a real opportunity for the government to embrace a similar approach and reframe how it approaches the vaccination rollout, leveraging the vast networks of the private sector across the country to get back on track.
A week in the Covid-19 world is equivalent to a year. There is still time, but we expect more. Without a well-planned and executed vaccination programme, SA will remain on “red” lists and off the radar of international airlines planning their routes. That airlift is critical as aviation has a catalytic effect on economies. Getting people safely flying again will be a powerful economic booster.
On the aviation front, we’ve been waiting for a first mover and we have one in United Airlines, which is to boldly start direct flights between Newark and Johannesburg in June. That is good news for both inbound and outbound travel, as United Airlines challenges the negative narrative about the 501Y.V2 variant first discovered in SA and paves the way for other international carriers to restart their services.
As a wider travel community, we have a lot of work to do to instill confidence among those travellers who are still fearful of travel — either because they are concerned about being exposed to Covid-19, or because they are wary about their money being safe.
Those customers who have already been travelling can vouch for it to be both safe and normal, including all the nonpharmaceutical interventions instituted by the full travel supply chain, from airlines to accommodation.
But beyond that, customers have become far more educated about spending their money and demand far more flexibility around terms and conditions, payment terms, and so on. They seek out companies that will provide them with peace of mind that they will get their money back if their travel plans are curtailed or have to be cancelled as a result of Covid-19.
Supplier solvency in this environment is key. As Flight Centre Travel Group, we have refunded more than R300m to passengers to date, but more than 2,500 refunds are still pending from carriers that are either in business rescue or grounded indefinitely. We have seen that customers will only do business with trusted brands and that there are big question marks over customers’ trust in airlines or any third-party supplier that are technically insolvent.
Travel is already a complex space with lots of moving parts and schedule changes. Any level of inconsistency makes it much harder to re-enter the market when things reopen.
Getting back on track and introducing some certainty in this uncertain environment for the benefit of travel and the wider economy, is not an impossible task. With the private sector waiting in the wings to flex its large distribution muscle, we could reach the ambitious goal of vaccinating 30-million people in 100 days. And if we begin in June, we could see international travel for South Africans and to SA opening up as soon as October.
The alternative is too frightening to imagine. At our current rate of vaccination, we expect that international travel from SA could only reopen from mid-2022, which would be devastating for the travel and tourism sector, which has already seen huge casualties.
While we must put pressure on the government to ramp up its vaccination programme, we must, as the private sector, also be ready to stand shoulder to shoulder with the government to expedite the programme tenfold. We are standing by. It’s not too late.