South African Airways, Boeing A340-300 Winglet, Photo by Christopher Griner
South African Airways, Boeing A340-300 Winglet, Photo by Christopher Griner

On Thanksgiving weekend, the unofficial beginning of the holiday travel season, the United States imposed a travel ban against countries in Southern Africa. The UK, Italy, Germany, France, the Netherlands and Malta followed, imposing their own restrictions. By early December, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland followed Britain’s lead, and in the days after, Israel banned its citizens from traveling to South Africa, among other countries. Dr. Saad Omer, the director of the Yale Institute for Global Health, argued in pages of the New York Times that America’s travel ban was far too selective. “[Biden’s] travel ban on Southern African countries is not justifiable by science,” he wrote.

On December 28, the Biden administration rescinded its travel ban for people in eight Southern African countries, but by then, the damage had already been done. “In just 48 hours,” writes Dorine Reinstein in Travel Weekly, “South Africa’s tourism industry lost over $64 million in travel bookings.” Those figures come from SATSA as well as the Federated Hospitality Association of Southern Africa (Fedhasa), which had pleaded with the government to not enforce further travel restrictions during the holiday season.

Lion, South African Safari, Kruger National Park, Photo by David Berkowitz

Why did South Africa have to suffer? South Africa is a leader in genetic sequencing. The Africa Health Research Institute in Durban, for example, is doing fantastic (and thankless) work on behalf of all humanity. Africa, where the human species originated, contains more genetic diversity than any other continent. In December 2020, South Africa detected the Beta variant and in May 2021 the Delta variant, and again just a few weeks ago South African researchers first identified the Omicron variant. South Africa has gained some of the most sophisticated genetic sequencing labs on the planet forged through the crucible of the successive epidemics of tuberculosis and HIV.

Omicron, by the time it was discovered, was already circulating in many countries, not only the African continent. At the beginning of the holiday season, South Africa sounded the alarm at the rise of a new variant carrying a large number of mutations on its spike protein, which appeared to make the virus less recognizable to antibodies, and thus more likely to spread among populations. As a result of this early and transparently shared genetic data, nations went into overreaction mode and leaders, instead of leading, went in for political theatrics leaning towards nationalism.

African doctors and scientists should be rewarded, not punished, for their diligence in mapping the rise of Omicron. “Rather than stigmatizing countries, such as South Africa, which rely heavily on a strong Travel & Tourism industry, we should be applauding them for identifying this new variant so quickly,” said WTTC’s President, Julia Simpson. “Until we fully understand this new variant, we must focus on prioritizing the world distribution of vaccines while adopting sensible measures such as wearing masks.” 

Ndebele Village, Mpumalanga, South Africa, Photo Courtesy of South African Tourism

However, in the days following the Thanksgiving weekend, the UK added Nigeria, a former British colony and Africa’s most populous country, to its infamous “Red List.” In response, Nigeria’s Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, called the ban “discriminatory,” and during the first week of December, the United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Gutierrez, publicly agreed with that sentiment and went further than Nigeria’s Health Secretary, calling the blanket bans directed at Africa as “travel apartheid”. “We have the instruments to have safe travel. Let’s use those instruments to avoid this kind of, allow me to say, travel apartheid, which I think is unacceptable. What is unacceptable to have one part of the world, which is one of the most vulnerable parts of the world economy, condemned to a lockout when they were the ones that revealed the existence of the new variant that, by the way, already existed in other parts of the world including Europe, as we now know. So this is a very strong appeal that I launch, (an) appeal to common sense.” 

Nigeria has felt the Tourism industry pinch of this pandemic more than most nations. According to WTTC data from their 2021 Annual Research, Nigeria lost tens of millions of jobs in Travel and Tourism. In 2019, 1 in 10 jobs in Nigeria was in the Travel and Tourism industry (334 million). By 2020, 1 in 11 jobs (272 million) were in that industry. One can only wonder about the effects of the red lists on the final 2021 data tabulations.

NIgerian Afrobeats musician and entertainer Yemi Alade performing live, Photo by @Synes4

While many of the holiday bans are thankfully collapsing as the New Year unfolds, the fact is that they had a tremendous effect on the Africa holiday travel season. Why were such consequential economic barriers erected in Africa at the outset of Omicron in such haste? President Biden’s top medical advisor, Anthony Fauci, all but admitted as much about these recent travel bans passing largely “in the dark,” even as our understanding of this particular viral mutation was still quite small. African economies that rely on tourism, already hit hard by COVID, were hit even harder by these red lists by Western nations.

The lasting effects of these thoughtless travel bans at the height of the holiday season will be felt in Africa for decades to come. According to information from the East African Community, which includes Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan, tourism includes nearly 7 per cent of employment. And while returns to investment in Africa are among the highest in the world, according to the World Bank, the tourism industry across Africa suffered badly. The Mediterranean Island country of Cyprus has recently identified a strain of COVID-19 that combines both the Delta and Omicron variants named Deltacron, and while we wait to learn if it will be more contagious and deadly as prior strains, it is imperative that the pathological patterns are understood before a committing to ethno-nationalism.

This year, real GDP among African countries dependent on tourism will shrink by 12 percent, according to the IMF, largely because of tourism losses. In 2019, the year before the global pandemic, tourism accounted $169 billion to the economy of the African continent, or about seven percent of Africa’s GDP. Further, that same year, Africa’s travel and tourism sector employed more than 24 million people, according the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC). The total contribution of Travel & Tourism to GDP from 2019 to 2020 in South Africa was down almost 49.8 percent, and that was before the aggressively punitive travel bans imposed by many Western nations.

Uhuru National Stadium, Tanzania, Photo Courtesy of GovernmantZA

Tanzania celebrated its 60th anniversary of independence last month at the height of tourist season at Uhuru National Stadium in Dar es Salaam. It was the apex of the “Unforgettable Tanzania” campaign for international tourism. Although attendance was good, it almost certainly was less because of heavily restricted red-lists, like Israel’s, which continue albeit in limited form as the holiday season subsides.

Tourism is a key driver in closing the rich/poor gap in developing countries. Tourism-dependent nations averaged real per capita GDP growth between 1990 and 2019 compared with non-tourism dependent countries in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the IMF. What will be the effects of this red-listing on a country like Liberia, which celebrated its 200th anniversary, putting forward a tremendous effort to bring about holiday tourism for that once in a lifetime occurrence?

The continent of Africa clearly has done its part as a good neighbor among the community of nations regarding the discovery of the omicron variant. And as a member in good standing, the continent did not deserve “Red Lists,” some of which have since been scrapped, but still are leaving vast economic consequences in their wake. So many African nations depend on tourism, from both the Africans in the diaspora and interested visitors, and are reeling from almost two years of pandemic austerity and lockdowns. Did the West overreact here? Almost certainly. And once again, the victims will be the economies – particularly the smaller ones – in Africa.

A group of elephants crossing the road in front of Mt. Kilimanjaro at Amboselli National Park, Kenya, Photo by Diana Robinson
Elephants crossing the road in front of Mt. Kilimanjaro at Amboselli National Park, Kenya, Photo by Diana Robinson

Ron Mwangaguhunga is a Brooklyn based writer on media, culture and politics. His work has appeared within Huffington Post, IFC and Tribeca Film Festival, Kenneth Cole AWEARNESS, NY Magazine, Paper Magazine, CBS and National Review online to name a few. He is currently the editor of the Corsair

(twitter: @RonMwangaguhung)

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