Omicron cut SA’s overseas arrivals by 30% in December – but it didn’t stop the Dutch

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  • Overseas arrivals in South Africa dropped by 30% in December, according to the latest data by Stats SA.
  • This slump coincided with widespread travel restrictions imposed on South Africa following the discovery of the Omicron coronavirus variant.
  • But, bucking the global trend, the number of travellers from the Netherlands increased in November.
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International travel restrictions imposed following the discovery of Omicron saw overseas arrivals in South Africa plummet by 30% in December. But travellers from the Netherlands persevered.

South Africa’s embattled tourism sector had hoped for a bumper festive season after enduring a year’s worth of focused travel restrictions. Key tourism source markets like the United Kingdom, Germany, and the United States had just eased their South African restrictions.

Then came Omicron. Discovered by a team of scientists working for South Africa’s genomic surveillance network in late November, news of the highly mutated coronavirus variant spread across the globe.

Within 48 hours, dozens of countries had banned travel to and from South Africa. Immediate cancellations topped R1 billion. Most restrictions persisted throughout December, despite evidence that Omicron had been active in other countries before South Africa’s discovery. The travel bans were criticized as being unscientific, ineffective, and discriminatory.

See also | Travel bans did little to stop Omicron – but they’ve cost SA more than R2 billion, so far

Data recently released by Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) – which looks at tourism and migration numbers during December 2021 – shows that overseas arrivals dropped by 30% from November. Usually, December sees an increase in foreign arrivals and is considered the busiest travel period.

The number of travelers arriving from Europe dropped by 31%. Travelers from Germany, one of South Africa’s largest source markets for tourists, were incredibly hesitant, with the number of arrivals more than halving from November to December.

Arrivals from the Middle East were most heavily impacted, dropping by 81%. Arrivals from North America declined by just 9%, the lowest decrease among all continents.

Travelers from only three countries cited by Stats SA – the Netherlands, Sweden, and the UK – increased in December.

Arrivals from the Netherlands increased by almost 4%, from 4,786 in November to 4,972 in December. Travelers from the UK to South Africa increased by less than 3%.

Arrivals from Sweden showed the greatest increase, with around 25% more travellers visiting South Africa in December.

But even with these increases, South Africa’s December arrivals from the Netherlands, Sweden, and the UK remain woefully low compared to pre-pandemic levels in 2019.

In December 2019, before Covid-19 became a global pandemic, South Africa welcomed more than 250,000 overseas arrivals. That dropped to around 51,500 in 2021. Although that’s 41% up from the prior year, it’s still down 80% compared to pre-pandemic levels.

Arrivals from the UK, South Africa’s main source market, were at 22% of levels recorded in 2019. For travellers from Sweden, it’s even worse, at just 18% of pre-pandemic levels.

Of the three countries’ arrivals that increased in December, travelers from the Netherlands remained the most resilient, at 37% of pre-pandemic levels.

And although the total number of overseas arrivals in South Africa dropped in December, travelers from other African countries increased by around 5%. Travelers from countries in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region, most notably Zimbabwe and Mozambique, accounted for the vast majority of arrivals.

(Compiled by Luke Daniel)

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