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Keeping the tourism sector closed is unjustifiable, says Wits professor

There is no need to keep the tourism industry closed to international visitors, says Prof Alex van den Heever.
There is no need to keep the tourism industry closed to international visitors, says Prof Alex van den Heever.

There is no reason tourism poses a greater risk than any other sector by being open, says a Wits professor.

Prof Alex van den Heever, chair in the field of social security systems administration and management studies at the Wits School of Governance, said SA was shooting itself in the foot by keeping tourism closed as there is “no public health reason to do so”.

Despite medical experts saying the industry is low risk enough for borders to reopen due to the sector’s stringent health and hygiene safety protocols adopted, SA remains firmly shut for the foreseeable future. It has a stringent visa regime and quarantine requirement under the National Disaster Act that would severely constrain demand for inbound international tourism even if borders were to reopen tomorrow.

“SA already has community infections and therefore needs to manage the risk to the general community and the traveller in an environment in which the disease is already present.” This is unlike the situation of countries such as New Zealand and South Korea which have focused their strategies on disease elimination. For SA and Europe this horse has long bolted, he argues.

“In the South African context, if an infected person comes to our country, it would be much the same as if someone from Benoni travelled to Johannesburg.

“Almost every area in SA was seeded, so we will see a bubbling up of the virus only if we back off from being careful and expose communities to super-spreading events. So we need to be cautious and adhere to health protocols until there is a safe and effective vaccine,” said Van den Heever.

He said the questions that should be asked were how to manage the risk of living with the virus, and how best to mitigate the consequences of people being positive in different contexts.

“We can’t just shut everything down. The main issue is preventing super-spreading by being careful and attentive to any instances where protocols need to be updated or where protocol adherence is a problem.

“It is worth noting that the tourism sector is far better able to manage the risk of the pandemic now than it was in March 2020,” Van den Heever said.   

Besides being able to reopen safely, SA must, as far as possible, avoid the requirement of a quarantine period, he said.

“It is imperative that safe alternatives to quarantine approaches also be considered. Careful consideration needs to be given to developing such an approach as it will remove a considerable barrier to international travel. Workable options can be developed in conjunction with infectious disease specialists and institutionalised into health protocols.

“If good protocols are adhered to, SA should be able to manage the risks posed by Covid-positive travellers, as well as those situations where travellers can be infected within SA’s borders. Much of SA is already in this position — with open businesses subject to health protocols. It is therefore unclear what additional risks are posed by international travel that are not already present and managed locally,” Van den Heever added.


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