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Sudden travel bans imposed on South Africa in the past week over the omicron variant of coronavirus have dealt a blow to an already struggling economy, experts say. The jobless rate is creeping toward half the population and the lost tourism this month will have a far-reaching impact extending beyond the travel sector.
The Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum, at the center of the apartheid struggle in South Africa, is normally bustling with tourists.
Since the recent discovery of the omicron coronavirus variant, foreign visitors have vanished. Britain was the first to halt flights to South Africa, with the United States and other countries quickly following suit.
People working in the tourism industry say panic over the new variant is decimating business, just as travel was starting to pick up over the past two months.
Wayne Barnes is a sales manager with MoAfrika Tours.
“When the U.K. actually opened up and took us off the red list, we started seeing an increase [in] numbers [of] travelers from all around the world started to support us again. So, their decisions is definitely affecting, you know, everybody around the world on their decisions,” he said.
And the decision blindsided many.
Barnes said his company lost over $30,000 to refunds in just one day for canceled December bookings.
Tour guides like Thabang Moleya went from leading groups of over 40 people last week to no one today.
“I’m very hurt at the moment, namely, because things were starting to look like we were starting to be working normally, that which will remind us of life before COVID,” said Moleya.
It’s not just the tourism industry that’s hurting.
From vehicle suppliers to website developers, the collapse of travel is having a domino effect across the economy.
Nearly 47% of South Africans were jobless last quarter, according to government statistics released this week.
It’s a bleak landscape for parents and breadwinners like Thabang Moleya, who are again facing layoffs.
“At some point, I wanted to come up with an idea of what one can do. Also, it was not easy for one to find any job. I’m just hoping and believing that one day one would work again, the world would travel again,” said Moleya.
But economists say recovery is years away.
And locking down will only slow that recovery and make life harder for the poorest.
Dawie Roodt is the chief economist for the Efficient Group in Pretoria.
“The biggest killer out there is not a virus or TB, or AIDS or anything, the biggest killer out there is poverty. It might be necessary to prevent larger crowds to get together and things like that. But it's not necessarily necessary to stop airlines from flying and to necessarily stop people from going, stay at home [and] not go to work, or stay at home and not go to the factory and things like that,” said Roodt.
For those who have managed to cling to their jobs, like Johannesburg tourism ambassador Mbali Ngema, the situation still feels demoralizing.
“Before, you used to have that thing of waking up in the morning to say I'm going to work, I'm going to see new people, I'm going to meet new people. But due to this, you just wake up and you sit and you do nothing,” said Ngema.
Until scientists better understand the omicron variant and politicians change their views on travel, South Africans will have to continue waiting for normal life to return.