The inbound travel trade celebrated today (June 9) following news that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has moved South Africa from risk alert Level 4 to Level 3.

This follows the landing of the first daily United Airlines flight from New York Newark to Johannesburg’s OR Tambo on Friday (June 4).

The CDC has eased travel recommendations for more than 110 countries and territories, including moving 61 countries from Level 4 to Level 3. This risk-level rating recommends travel for those US citizens who have been fully vaccinated.

According to a Reuters news agency report, the US State Department said many countries had lower ratings “because of the criteria changes or because their outbreaks are better controlled”.

MD of Cape Xtreme Adventure Tours, Barry O’Donoghue, told Tourism Update any move to a lower risk rating would instil confidence in prospective travellers for a destination. “Those who were previously cautious will be more reassured,” he said.

O’Donoghue is currently running three- to five-week adventure tours in the Garden Route for a group of over 200 students from the US. “Some are back home already without incident and they were all highly impressed with the high standards of health and safety protocols,” he said.

Most of the group had been vaccinated but the PCR tests and the protocols practised had given them all peace of mind, O’Donoghue added, highlighting that the success of the US vaccination roll-out would encourage more travel from the US.

Onne Vegter, MD of Wild Wings Safaris, agreed with this assessment, noting that a recent group of US tourists he hosted had also commented on the stringent enforcement and compliance of these protocols by all travel suppliers.

“One woman told me she felt safer in South Africa than she did in the US because we had such strict protocols ensuring her safety.”

He told Tourism Update that most of the enquiries he had had to date were from the US and most of the tourists he had hosted since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic were from the States.

“I expect this to increase with this latest announcement,” said Vegter, adding that United’s new direct daily service to Johannesburg was another competitive advantage. “The Qatar flight via Doha was always full and many have now moved their flights via Europe to the United flight.”

O’Donoghue noted that for his group it was a challenge that there were no direct flights to Cape Town, which meant a lot of juggling and additional expenses but they managed with a few from Europe.

And, Vegter added, another major advantage for the US market was that there was no quarantine imposed on travellers arriving back from South Africa.

‘There is still scope for improvement around the narrative’

While O’Donoghue noted that there also seemed to be less concern about the new variants than there was in other key source markets, CEO of the Tourism Business Council of South Africa, Tshifhiwa Tshivhengwa, did express concern that the US State Department was using the same narrative for South Africa as it did for Alert Level 4.

The US State Department advisory reads: “Reconsider travel to South Africa due to COVID-19. Exercise extreme caution in South Africa due to increased crime and civil unrest.”

Tshivhengwa told Tourism Update that while there was crime in South Africa, very few tourists had been directly affected. “Plus, we have invested a lot into addressing this issue and will continue to do everything possible to keep tourists safe.”

According to him, crime is also driven by socio-economic conditions that arise when jobs are lost in a key economic sector such as tourism. “We need tourists to create jobs and the more jobs we can create the lower our crime rate will be.

“So the narrative has to change to instill further confidence in Destination South Africa.”

Tshivhengwa said there was ongoing engagement with the US Embassy, who would advocate for South Africa’s risk level rating to be further reduced and for the narrative to change.

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