HomeLifestyleWhen Will Covid-19 End? In South Africa, The Travel Industry Can’t Wait

When Will Covid-19 End? In South Africa, The Travel Industry Can’t Wait

The end of Covid-19 in South Africa didn’t happen as expected this week. Instead of removing the remaining restrictions as many anticipated, President Cyril Ramaphosa urged South Africans to continue fighting the pandemic.

“If we all get vaccinated, continue to observe basic health measures and remain ever vigilant, we will be able to get on with our lives even with the virus in our midst,” he told parliament on Thursday.

It’s a departure from the sudden loosening of pandemic restrictions undertaken by the U.K., Scandinavia and some U.S. states last week. And that makes this an unusual time to be traveling, with a patchwork of pandemic rules and regulations across the world. 

It’s also left many people here wondering when Covid-19 will end permanently. Is it out of Africa yet? How about Cape Town? And if the pandemic isn’t done, how much longer do we have to wait?

The South African tourism industry, including its hotels and attractions, is growing impatient with the rules that keep visitors away. But there are encouraging signs that people are starting to travel again — even internationally.

When will Covid-19 end permanently?

People seem eager to know when the pandemic will be over. And they’re looking for a definitive sign, similar to the U.K.’s broad loosening of restrictions and quarantine requirements this week.

The World Health Organization came close to that on Thursday, when it declared that Africa is moving out of the pandemic phase and toward becoming endemic. 

“I believe that we are transitioning from the pandemic phase and we will now need to manage the presence of this virus in the long term,” Matshidiso Moeti, a physician and public health specialist, said in a media briefing. “We think that we’re moving now, especially with the vaccination expected to increase, into what might become a kind of endemic living with the virus.” 

Last week, South African authorities announced that people who test positive for the coronavirus but show no symptoms of Covid-19 no longer have to self-isolate. The government also reopened schools for in-person learning. 

But it stopped short of declaring the pandemic over or from taking broader steps to loosen restrictions as the U.K. has done. That left people waiting for a more formal sign that Covid has ended, as I noted last week.

In some places, it sure feels like the pandemic is over.

Has Covid already ended in Cape Town?

Although no one is saying so, it certainly looks like Covid is history in Cape Town. 

Officially, it isn’t. But if you want the unofficial answer, just stop by the President Hotel Cape Town on a weekday afternoon. The property is perched on a hill in the trendy Bantry Bay neighborhood overlooking a tempestuous Atlantic. At the pool and restaurant, there’s not a mask in sight. They’ll read your temperature when you walk through the front door, but once you’re in, it feels like 2019 again.

The hotel’s general manager, Desmond O’Connor, says everyone just wants to get back to normal. It’s not good hospitality to patrol the halls of his hotel and tell people to wear their masks. People, he said, are here on vacation — not to lock down.

“Since the U.K. lifted its restrictions, we’ve seen other markets follow,” he says.

O’Connor says his hotel’s number one market is the U.K. And as far as Britain is concerned, Covid is over and it’s time to plan a vacation. His property is getting a surge of visitors from the U.K., and to some extent Germany, as restrictions get loosened. It’s making up for the extreme downturn in visits during the omicron surge, when flights to South Africa stopped because of the pandemic.

O’Connor says advance bookings are strong, which leads him to believe the pandemic may finally be over. And there are other hopeful signs.

Positive signs that Covid-19 has ended

To get an idea of what the end of Covid-19 might look like in South Africa, you have to visit the Oranjezicht City Farm Market early on a Sunday afternoon. It’s crowded with residents buying fresh sourdough bread and locally grown vegetables. There are food trucks selling South African chakalaka, a bean dish, and Vietnamese banh mi. 

At the front of the market, you’ll find guards. Last week, they took your temperature and offered offered a squirt of hand sanitizer. But this week, they waved everyone through. And once inside, many of the masks come off.

Just down the street, at Atlantic Outlook Kayak Tours, Jordan Zeelie is taking inventory of omicron’s aftermath. 

“In November and December, things started to pick up,” says Zeelie, the manager of operations. “People are almost fed up with the pandemic.”

Zeelie reports he set a record for bookings last month, as more locals started to come out to kayak in the Atlantic and tourists began to return. 

“It’s been incredible for us,” he says.

But other operators are still waiting for a bounce-back.

But Covid-19 is not over yet

But when will travelers get the “all clear,” and when will Covid-19 end permanently? At the Robben Island Museum, one of Cape Town’s most popular attractions, there’s still a long way to go before business recovers. I spoke with a tour guide who said they were running at less than half their normal capacity. Visitors were coming from within South Africa to see the place Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. But they are still waiting for international visitors to return. 

Juma Mkwela, who runs art tours in the nearby townships, is also waiting for his business to return. Before the pandemic, he guided busloads of tourists through the townships almost every day; now, he has two small tours per week. 

“But what’s interesting is that since Covid, people have started to create ways to find income — they’re starting new business and selling new products,” he told me. In other words, they’re making the best of the situation and improvising as they go along.

I got the same sense when I spoke to Mark Wernich, the general manager at the Taj Cape Town, last week. Omicron put the brakes on the summer tourist season, which runs from December to March. But now that things are loosening up a little, there’s hope that February and March could still be big months.

Wernich was one of several people who told me they hoped the State of the Nation address would mark the end of the pandemic in South Africa. This in-between stage may be an opportunity for international tourists to visit southern Africa when prices are low and occupancy rates are even lower. You don’t get to have a destination like Cape Town to yourself except maybe during the darkest days of winter. But it’s summertime in the southern hemisphere, which is usually high season — except this year.

And there’s a glimmer of hope that we’re close to the end. In his speech, President Ramaphosa said he soon plans to lift the state of emergency that’s been in effect for two years.

“We are now ready to enter a new phase in our management of the pandemic,” he said.

When that happens, South Africa’s tourism industry is ready to welcome all the visitors it lost during the omicron surge.

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