South Africa alerted the world to the new Covid variant of concern and has paid a price

Cape Town letter: many South Africans are bitter at the international community, believing their nation has been punished for its transparency

Any chance of a quick recovery for Cape Town's beleaguered tourism sector looks to have been snuffed out by the Covid-19-related travel restrictions that developed nations have imposed on South Africa ahead of the festive season.

Hopes were high in November that the fast-approaching summer would provide a major financial and employment boost to the struggling industry, traditionally one of the economic pillars of the Western Cape province's capital.

Hundreds of tourism businesses that had shut because of Covid-19 have recently reopened in anticipation of cashing in on the wave of foreigner travellers expected in Cape Town over the months ahead.

But the emergence of Omicron and developed nations’ decision to implement travel bans and restrictions on seven southern African countries have destroyed this economic lifeline, in the short term at least.


Indeed, the resilience of South Africa’s tourism sector in the post-apartheid era is being tested like never before.

A snap survey conducted by the Southern Africa Tourism Services Association and the Federated Hospitality Association of South Africa published in early December revealed their members had lost one billion rand (€55 million) in cancellations within days of the restrictions coming into force.

While it is not clear how many jobs will be lost because of Western governments’ actions, it could be in the tens of thousands for Cape Town alone, and hundreds of thousands nationwide.

A survey of its members conducted by Cape Town Tourism after the Omicron-related travel restrictions were introduced shows 32 per cent expect 75 per cent less revenue between December and next February.

In addition, 34 per cent of those surveyed said that more than 75 per cent of their bookings had been cancelled for December.


Although airlines have yet to release the number of cancellations they have recorded for flights to southern Africa, I flew back to Cape Town from Ireland on December 5th and my Lufthansa flight, which is normally booked out, was less than 25 per cent full.

Many of my fellow travellers appeared to be South Africans or foreigners returning home, rather than holiday-makers.

Even a cursory walk around Cape Town’s tourism hotspots reveals the on-the-ground impact of decisions taken many thousands of kilometres away. Bars and restaurants that are normally bustling at this time of year have only a few local customers at best.

Cape Town Tourism chief executive Enver Duminy says his members had been quietly optimistic that the next few months would prove much better financially than the disastrous same period in 2020. But the recent turn in events, he said, had left "everyone shocked".

“People restarting their businesses have told ex-employees to come back, we have work for you, but now they are forced to let them go again. The toll this is taking on people is not just financial, it is emotional too,” he told The Irish Times.

Duminy said there was hope that local tourists would pick up some of the slack left by the absent international travellers, but it was currently too early to assess to what extent businesses can stave-off financial disaster.

Indeed, it does seem that many Cape Town businesses remain unwilling to write off the whole season in case the new year brings a reversal in their fortunes.

The survey revealed that while 36 per cent of businesses surveyed have let staff go because of the introduction of the restrictions, most hope to rehire them early next year.


Despite this hope many South Africans are also bitter and angry at the international community, believing their nation has been punished for its transparency. South Africa alerted the world to the existence of the new Covid-19 variant of concern and has paid a price in return.

Even South Africa's normally diplomatic president, Cyril Ramaphosa, has hit out at Western nations for isolating the country, saying the travel restrictions have been implemented in an apartheid-like manner.

But foreign nations are not the only targets of South Africans’ restrictions-related ire.

News24, a local news website, reported last week that some of the country’s top Covid-19 scientists had been threatened, abused and intimidated by the public for alerting the world to Omicron.

One letter sent to Prof Tulio de Oliveira, a Stellenbosch University researcher and head of the team that identified Omicron, said: "How dare you release stats on the supposed new variant. You have f**ked up the entire country."

A clear case of shooting the messenger if ever there was one.