JOHANNESBURG — South African travel agencies report a surge in reservations for travel to and from Britain on Friday ahead of the country being removed from the U.K.'s COVID-19 red list next week.
Some companies said they were being overwhelmed by the number of people looking to travel since the British government announced it will lift restrictions on travelers arriving from 47 countries, including South Africa. The change will come into effect on Monday.
The decision to keep South Africa on the red list had been criticized by the country's government, tourism operators and scientists, leading to a series of discussions between the leaders of both countries and their respective health experts.
The British rules banned anyone who had been in a red list country in the previous 10 days from visiting Britain. Only U.K. and Irish nationals or returning residents were allowed to enter from South Africa or other red list countries, and they faced a mandatory 10-day quarantine.
The rules also severely limited British tourists visiting South Africa as they were advised by their government they "should not" travel to red list countries and faced expensive hotel quarantine stays on their return home if they did.
The U.K. is South Africa's biggest tourism source market outside Africa with more than 400,000 British travelers ordinarily visiting every year, according to official figures. That figure plunged to less than 10,000 so far this year because of the pandemic.
Flight Centre, one of South Africa's biggest travel agencies, said it was struggling to cope with the demand sparked by the British announcement.
"The minute the announcement came through we could see on our online booking tools as well as our email inquiries and telephone calls this morning that there was a big surge," Andrew Stark, Flight Centre Travel Group managing director, said Friday. "It has been pretty manic."
"We see this as most source markets open up, the following day we are inundated, we just cannot keep up with the demand, to be honest," he said.
Rosemary Anderson, chairwoman of hospitality association FEDHASA, said she is also seeing "a flurry of activity of South Africans wanting to travel to the U.K. and British people wanting to come to South Africa."
"We are going into summer, the U.K. is going towards autumn and many British people have not been able to travel to sunny places, so that makes South Africa a great destination for them," she said.
South African tourism minister Lindiwe Sisulu also welcomed the British decision, which comes in time for the start of the country's peak tourism season near the end of the year.
"We look forward to welcoming our British visitors in time for the South African summer season and we will continue to work tirelessly with all our national and international partners to ensure the success of South Africa's tourism recovery," Sisulu said in a statement.
South Africa's important tourism industry has been decimated by the pandemic and the damage was prolonged by the U.K. keeping it on the red list, stakeholders said.
South Africa is Africa's worst-affected country by the virus, with more than 2.9 million cases and 88,000 deaths reported. It is also the country where the beta variant was first detected. It has vaccinated 16% of its population of 60 million people, according to Johns Hopkins University, and started issuing digital vaccine certificates which may be used by travelers on Friday.
All of the 22 other African countries still on Britain's red list will also be removed on Monday, leaving the strictest travel restrictions in place for just seven countries: Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Haiti, Panama, Peru and Venezuela.