Vaccine rollout the spark needed to reignite international travel

Vaccines

Vaccine rollout the spark needed to reignite international travel

30 million vaccinations in 100 days must be the focus for getting international travel back online by October 2021. Andrew Stark, MD Middle East & Africa Flight Centre Travel Group

by Andrew Stark, MD Middle East & Africa Flight Centre Travel Group

The reopening of international travel hinges largely on South Africa successfully ramping up its vaccination programme and private sector is standing by to help.

Much has been written about the glacial pace at which our vaccine roll out in South Africa appears to be progressing.

The slower the roll out, the longer the recovery of our travel sector, and its deep supply chain, which has already hemorrhaged hundreds of thousands of jobs with many more at risk if we don’t push the re-set button, throw the rule book out the window and make the herculean effort to get those shots in arms.

The only way to give our international source markets – travellers and airlines – confidence in reopening the door to South Africa is to have upwards of 40 million people vaccinated and fast. We’ve started slow, but I have hope that we can play the leading role we should be on the African continent and ramp it up swiftly.

For that to happen, we need some new thinking.

In a world where businesses have been forced to push the re-set button, do things differently and fast forward many years ahead, we can’t afford to go back to business as usual. We see this as a real opportunity for the South African government to embrace the same approach and reframe how they are approaching the vaccination roll out, leveraging the vast networks that private sector has across the country to get back on track.

A week in the COVID world is equivalent to a year. There’s still time, but we expect more.

Without a well-planned and executed vaccination programmed, South Africa will remain on ‘red’ lists and off the radar of international airlines planning their routes. That airlift is critical as aviation has a catalytic effect for economies. Getting people safely flying again will be a powerful economic booster.

On the aviation front, we’ve been waiting for a first mover and we have one in United Airlines which has taken the bold move to start direct flights between Newark and Johannesburg in June. That’s good news for both inbound and outbound travel, as United Airlines challenges the negative narrative we’re seeing internationally about the 501Y.V2 variant first discovered in South Africa and paves the way for other international carriers to restart their services.

Traveller confidence through flexibility

As a wider travel community, we have a lot of work to do to instil confidence among those travellers who are still fearful of travel – either because they are concerned about being exposed to COVID, or because they’re wary about whether their money is safe.

Those customers who have already been travelling can vouch for travel being both safe and normal, including all the non-pharmaceutical interventions instituted by the full travel supply chain from airlines to accommodation.

But beyond that, customers have become far more educated about where they spend their money and are also demanding far more flexibility around terms and conditions, payment terms, etc., seeking out those companies that will provide them with peace of mind that they’ll get their money back if their travel plans are curtailed or have to be cancelled as a result of COVID.

Supplier solvency in this environment is key. As Flight Centre Travel Group, we’ve refunded over R300 million to passengers to date, however there are still over 2,500 refunds pending from carriers that are either in business rescue or grounded indefinitely.

We’ve seen that customers will only do business with trusted brands and that there are big question marks on whether customers can trust airlines or any third-party supplier for that matter that are technically insolvent.

Travel is already a complex space with lots of moving parts, schedule changes, etc. Any level of inconsistency makes it much harder to re-enter the market when things reopen. 

Getting back on track and introducing some certainty in this uncertain environment for the benefit of travel and the wider economy, is not an impossible task. With private sector waiting in the wings to flex its large distribution muscle, we could reach the ambitious goal of vaccinating 30 million people in 100 days. And if we begin in June, we could see international travel for South Africans and to South Africa opening up as soon as October.

The alternative is too frightening to imagine. At our current rate of vaccination, we anticipate that international travel from South Africa could only reopen from mid 2022, which would be devastating for the travel and tourism sector which has already seen massive casualties.

While we must put pressure on Government to ramp up its vaccination programme, we must, as private sector, also be ready to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Government to expedite the programme 10-fold. We are standing by. It’s not too late.