With regular changes to travel restrictions globally, the travel industry has had to take knock after knock as travellers alter and even cancel their plans.  

The past 18 months have been a turbulent period for the travel industry. As zipped travel bags sit atop wardrobes collecting dust, unpredictable changes to the restrictions of different countries have meant travel agencies and passengers have had to be certain about every detail before planning any trips. Even then, nothing is guaranteed until take-off.  

Hassina Bava, founder of Blue Chip Travels, an independently owned South African-based travel agency, said that in essence leisure travel had almost come to “a complete standstill”. Airport lounges have become white elephants as the coronavirus pandemic continues to disrupt international travel, and with many countries still closed to South Africans, “many locals have opted to travel domestically instead”, Bava told Wits Vuvuzela.  

The covid-19 pandemic is something that has not just affected travel agencies and passengers, but also the aviation industry. South African Airways went over a year without a commercial flight taking off, and only recently came out of a 17-month business rescue plan. The national carrier has now battled its way back and finally hit the skies again on September 23, 2021.

Australian-based Qantas Group said in a statement in August 2021 that the covid-19 crisis in the full year 2021 caused it a $12-billion (R125-billion) revenue impact, with a statutory loss of $2.35 billion (R34-billion) before tax. The company has had to let 9 400 people go “largely due to offshore job losses at airports and sales offices”.  

Dr Ronesh Dhawraj has opted to travel domestically for the time being. Photo: Razeen Gutta 

Hitesh Dayaljee, former handling agent at Bidair Services, a division of Bidvest, was in the aviation industry for 22 years. Starting his career on the high of South Africa’s 1995 Rugby World Cup win, Dayaljee moved from Phoenix Aviation to Singapore Airlines before arriving at OR Tambo International Airport in the specialised field of general aviation. 

Dayaljee handled high-profile passenger and private jets for Bidair. “With covid-19, many of us have lost our jobs,” Dayaljee said. “Bidair Services was sold, and so I have been away from this industry since April 2020. While covid is around, this is a risky business. Travel is something only the wealthy can afford. We can only pray and hope for the best. Aviation is in my heart.”  

SABC News research editor Dr Ronesh Dhawraj told Wits Vuvuzela that as someone who travels quite frequently for business and leisure purposes, “the pandemic has significantly changed the way” he views travel. “While I miss travelling overseas, I think it is a good thing to finally use this time to focus on things I always wanted to do, and to focus on myself. Plus, with technology these days you can travel anywhere you want to – but virtually, and for much, much less,” Dhawraj said.  

He has been working from home since the surge of the pandemic in South Africa in March 2020 and has travelled just once since then. “I went on a domestic flight for an urgent staff meeting; and while I do have plans to travel overseas again as the borders slowly open up, those plans won’t come into effect just yet. I would rather play it safe and choose a local holiday than spend thousands for a trip I may regret later,” he said. 

Most of the travellers leaving South Africa in the past few months have been foreign nationals looking to go back home, and with restrictions such as having to be fully vaccinated or taking rapid covid-19 tests prior to flying, coordinating trips has not been easy. 

“Our nerves are on edge. We don’t know if passengers will make it onto booked flights. Often what happens is that airlines change their flight times at the eleventh hour because destination requirements change all the time. Nothing is set in stone,” Bava said. 

“If passengers get a positive covid-19 test prior to their flight, they are often liable for alteration costs. Qatar Airways has been the most accommodating in this regard. With free changes and no penalties, they have been very good to work with. Plus, they fly almost everywhere with transits in Doha.”

Qatar Airways is “flying almost everywhere with transits in Doha”. Photo: Razeen Gutta

Bava said the Maldives has been a popular destination for the wealthy. The island’s tourism authorities have offered a “Visit, Vaccinate, Vacation” scheme which gives tourists the opportunity to get jabbed while on holiday. Bava said Mauritius is also a country to keep an eye on: “Mauritius, unlike the Maldives, is a bit more affordable and had changes in travel restrictions on Friday, October 1, 2021.” Initially, South African travellers landing in Mauritius were required to be fully vaccinated and had to spend 14 days in quarantine upon arrival at their own expense. Now, vaccinated travellers are exempt from quarantine requirements and only require a PCR test to take off. 

Sue Garrett, general manager of supply, pricing and marketing at Flight Centre Travel Group, said the company is also keeping an eye on Mauritius. “Zanzibar and Maldives have been selling well as they are both open, but we have also observed a spike in inquiries to Mauritius,” she told Wits Vuvuzela.  

With Abu Dhabi having opened its borders from Monday, August 30, 2021, Bava says there is a sense of optimism that things might get back to normal soon. “Having been banned from leisure travel to Abu Dhabi since January 2021, Emirates flights from Johannesburg to Dubai have finally started again. Dubai will be having its global expo soon and we hope that passengers will be able to travel smoothly,” she said. 

The Flight Centre Travel Group launched a free travel news information hub last year that allows travellers to search for any country and get up-to-date covid-19 travel information.

FEATURED IMAGE: Travel bags have sit atop wardrobes as unpredictable restrictions cause uncertainty. Photo: Razeen Gutta