South Africa Saw An 85% Hit To Flight Bookings In December

Throughout the final month of 2021, South African travel and tourism took a substantial hit due to the emergence of the Omicron variant and subsequent restrictions. Bookings dropped by 85% compared to November. Airlines saw net negative ticket revenue for ten consecutive days, which hadn’t happened since the beginning of the crisis. However, recent trends of recovery give cause for optimism.

A plane seen taking off during sunset at Krakow's Balice
South Africa bookings dropped precipitously when the Omicron variant was first discovered. Photo: Getty Images

Controversial bans over variant of concern

Today, most evidence points to Omicron, while more contagious, being milder than Delta, resulting in fewer hospitalizations. However, little was still known when the variant was discovered in South Africa at the end of November last year.

The WHO labeled it a ‘variant of concern’ and governments around the globe issued controversial knee-jerk travel restrictions affecting South Africa and neighboring countries. Within two weeks, at least 90 countries had instated severe limitations on flights from the region, with five completely shutting their borders.

The European Union lifted restrictions on flights from southern Africa only yesterday, January 10th, over a month after instating them. The US removed its entry ban on non-US citizens traveling from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi on December 31st.

The UK was quicker, removing its red list restrictions on December 15th. However, while the restrictions were in place, they had time to severely damage airline finances and South African tourism.

British Airways, Boeing 787, London Heathrow
The UK was one of the first to reverse its southern Africa entry ban in mid-December, but not before bookings and ticket revenue took some serious damage. Photo: Getty Images

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Ten very rough days

Within the first two days of restrictions, South Africa’s tourism and hospitality industry lost close to $64 million. Bookings to South Africa dropped by a whopping 85% throughout the last month of the year compared to the month prior. After a surge of cancelations and refunds, airlines saw net negative bookings for several consecutive days at the beginning of December.

“There are net negative bookings [fall below -100%] for roughly ten consecutive days in early December, which is worse than the total,” an IATA spokesperson told Business Insider South Africa. 

Net negative bookings (when refunds exceed ticket revenue) are, fortunately, an infrequent occurrence. The last time it happened was during the height of the initial stages of the pandemic in March and April 2020.

IATA South Africa booking table
Bookings to South Africa saw an upward trend towards the end of the month while still not reaching pre-Omicron levels. Photo: IATA DDS, Our World in Data

Good news in the medium term

Meanwhile, across the globe, December was the best month of the year for the aviation industry. While the variant is still causing cancellations worldwide, including North and South America, Asia, and Oceania, IATA looks to South Africa’s current recovery trend as a sign of optimism and of that, perhaps, we are learning to live with the virus – as much as we wish we didn’t have to.

“More broadly, South Africa’s experience with Omicron points to the pandemic possibly becoming endemic, with a reduced impact on human activities as the virus continues to mutate. This would be good news for aviation in the medium term,” IATA said in a report released at the end of last week.

Were you affected by the restrictions on travel from southern Africa throughout December? Leave a comment below and tell us about it.