• Licence to travel

    Building trust in Africa as a safe tourist destination is central to reigniting the industry

    Licence to travel

    In a push to win international visitors back and restart tourism, an increasing number of countries globally are pinning their hopes on COVID-19 vaccine initiatives. The Maldives is, for example, among the first to explore ‘vaccination tourism’. This new market caters for unvaccinated travellers who arrive on the islands to receive their shot and then stay for a holiday (‘visit, vaccinate, vacation’).

    Further south, Zimbabwe singled out the town of Victoria Falls for mass vaccination to promote it worldwide as a COVID-safe destination. As soon as the Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines became available in Zimbabwe, local residents and tourism workers in Vic Falls were prioritised for the jab – and, in May, the town had officially achieved ‘herd immunity’ and was ready for visitors.

    In South Africa, several media campaigns are encouraging front-line tourism workers and the broader population to get vaccinated to revive the devastated tourism and hospitality industry. These come on top of the ongoing debates about vaccine passports and mandatory vaccinations for anybody working in the sector. Although the continent’s overall vaccine roll-out has been slow and patchy compared to Europe and the US, African countries are desperate to demonstrate that they are safe for international visitors to return.

    ‘While the debate around the effectiveness of vaccination continues, and will probably remain inconclusive, there is a global drive towards vaccination,’ says Elizabeth du Preez, senior lecturer of tourism management at the University of Pretoria. ‘The fact that South Africa’s vaccine supply has been secured arguably bodes well to strengthen international confidence in our country as a safe destination,’ she says. ‘Tourism front-line workers need to be vaccinated for this reason, and locals are also encouraged to get vaccinated for the sake of our industry. All these things increase traveller confidence – not only for inbound tourism, but also outbound as countries open up to accept South African travellers.’

    Front-line tourism workers in South Africa are being encouraged to get ‘vaxxed’ to demonstrate that the country is travel-ready

    The #Jab4Tourism campaign, initiated by a group of tourism-focused PR and communications agencies, specifically targets inbound travel to save jobs and livelihoods. ‘While we support freedom of choice, we have to show our travellers that South Africa is travel-ready and that we take their safety and that of our staff seriously,’ says Natalia Rosa, MD of Big Ambitions, one of the agencies involved. The campaign urges social media users to use the hashtag to post their images and videos to ‘show the leadership role the tourism sector can play in getting South Africans vaccinated so that we can get back to business in earnest’.

    The Western Cape Health Department launched a similar campaign to open up the local hospitality market. Called #JabsBeforeJol, it encourages people to get vaccinated before frequenting nightclubs, pubs and taverns. The department set aside a vaccination site exclusively for matriculants ahead of their post-exams parties. In addition, Cape Town Tourism – together with Vodacom, City Sightseeing’s Red Bus and other businesses – is incentivising ‘vaxxed’ individuals with discounts to explore some of the city’s prettiest sites at reduced prices.

    ‘In order to build visitor confidence, we believe the message has to begin at home, and in doing so we need to encourage as many people as possible to get vaccinated,’ says Briony Brookes, head of PR and communications at Cape Town Tourism. ‘The next step is continuing the support for SATSA’s [Southern Africa Tourism Services Association] call to get South Africa off of the red lists, which is critical before our summer months as this is when we see a substantial increase in international and local travel. We will be launching an international campaign in the coming months, which we hope will assist us further in educating travellers that Cape Town is a safe destination and ready for visitors.’

    To facilitate inbound travel, tourism agencies are supporting the WHO’s guidance to exempt fully vaccinated travellers from costly and tedious PCR testing.

    ‘We strongly favour this approach,’ says Brookes. ‘We believe that it will encourage people to travel more if it is eliminated and, in order to attract international tourists and for our industry to recover, we cannot afford to put up additional barriers.’ Du Preez agrees. ‘The main aim is for tourists to enter the country easily, making it more attractive to international visitors, saving costs and time. However, it could impede travel from countries where vaccine roll-out is slow. For these tourists, PCR test results will remain the primary means.’

    Travel in the post-COVID era will require digital proof of vaccination, as the paper vaccine cards currently used in South Africa and elsewhere on the continent are difficult to authenticate by airlines and border control, and can be easily forged. Agreeing on a common global protocol would substantially improve the situation. The International Air Transport Association launched the mobile Travel Pass app to help passengers store and manage their COVID health information, which was recently adopted by Emirates, with other airlines to follow. The WHO is also working on standardised worldwide vaccination proof, while the AU, together with the Africa Centres for Disease Control, has already rolled out its own mobile Trusted Travel app and platform to facilitate cross-border travel.

    In October, the South African government launched a digital COVID certificate that is aligned with international WHO standards and has fraud and other security protections in mind. National Health Minister Joe Phaahla said during a virtual press conference that the certificate is available via people’s smartphones and can also be printed out.

    Du Preez welcomes the use of the term ‘vaccine certificate’ rather than ‘vaccine passport’, which may create the impression that it’s only for travel purposes. However, while digital seems to be the most secure and trustworthy format, she warns that ‘not all South Africans possess the necessary devices that have this functionality. For those that do not, the information could be presented in a format that is more familiar, for example in the form of ID cards. Unfortunately, criminality will always be an issue’.

    South Africa’s digital vaccine certificate takes its information directly from the Electronic Vaccination Data System, and is likely to become important for gaining access to entertainment and sporting events.

    In France, it’s already compulsory for adults to present such a digital certificate before entering restaurants, cafés, museums, theatres or sports stadiums. The country’s ‘pass sanitaire’ – an app with a QR code showing proof of either vaccination, a negative COVID test or recovery from infection – has significantly driven the vaccination uptake and lowered infection rates. There are fines for non-compliance. In New York, all spectators at the US Open tennis tournament, which was at full capacity, were required to provide proof of at least one dose of a COVID vaccine.

    ‘I think it makes sense that people should be able to prove that they have been vaccinated, specifically when this will give access to services that are forced to operate under strict conditions, such as sports events, theatres and restaurants, and other non-essential settings,’ says Du Preez. ‘Along with the choice to refuse vaccination, arguably comes the willingness to deal with the consequences of this choice – similar to the longstanding debate on other vaccines. Restriction should, however, not include essential services that will infringe on people’s basic rights to health care, food and so on.’

    Cape Town Tourism’s Brookes concurs. ‘Vaccination requirements for entertainment, restaurants and other venues may be a prudent way to allow people to have amazing experiences while maintaining their safety, compared to those who are not vaccinated.’ She points out, however, that eventually it will come down to inoculating as many tourism and hospitality employees as possible to enable the sector to open up fully and to welcome all visitors – whether they’ve had the jab or not.

    In July, Sun City became South Africa’s first hospitality venue to set up its own large-scale vaccination site, catering for employees, service providers and concessionaires, followed by their family members and, eventually, all hospitality workers in the Moses Kotane District. ‘We’re running a massive vaccine education campaign,’ Anthony Leeming, CEO of Sun International, said in a recent webinar. ‘We have vaccination centres on our property, and where we don’t, we give our staff lifts to vaccination centres. We’re doing everything we can, but somehow the uptake is not as high as it could be. We are getting to the point where we’re looking into mandatory vaccinations.’

    In the US, vaccine mandates from larger employers in sectors such as healthcare, but also airlines, United for instance, are showing first results. They could lead the way for mandated vaccination in Africa’s tourism sector, although for now the emphasis remains on education and incentives to get vaccinated. It’s in everybody’s interest to speed up the recovery of the hard-hit tourism economy by building trust and showing international visitors that it’s safe to holiday – and do business – in Africa.

    By Silke Colquhoun
    Images: Gallo/Getty Images