Covid testing and tourism

The hard-hit tourism sector has pushed the Ministry of Environment and Tourism to support new wording in the Covid restrictions for entering visitors. The Ministry has agreed to review the regulations regarding when the 72-hour Covid-free test must be done for tourists.

It seems the current language regarding entry restrictions for tourists that is applicable until 15 September says arriving tourists must present a test result that is no older than 72 hours from the date the test was taken. The tourism industry in Namibia appears to want the rule’s language adjusted to say that an acceptable test result must be dated within 72 hours of the tourists’ embarkation en route to Namibia. If this summary of the language change demanded by the tourism industry is correct, we submit that changing the semantics of the regulation will not adjust the science of detecting Covid infections.

Government must look at the science, not the unfortunate suffering of vocal business owners in one industry. Prominent industry players must not put their justifiable fears of financial disaster above the national requirements to keep Namibians safe during an international pandemic. The fact remains that if a tourist tests negative on a Friday and does not travel on their Namibian holiday until Sunday and their trip takes 30+ hours of travel time (even without travel delays), their 72-hour window for a valid Covid test could close. They may be denied entry into Namibia or transit through Johannesburg.

A legitimate Friday test result (for example) cannot possibly be ‘counted’ as valid from the Sunday travel commencement day merely because of an itinerary. If 72 hours is deemed the window for being Covid-free to enter another country, then that is it. To unilaterally adjust our language away from the international norm could call into question Namibia’s credibility on Covid crisis management.

There are workarounds regarding the problem that could be considered. Given the Covid variants raging in many source markets for Namibian tourism clients, no one should be allowed in from high infection rate countries unless they are fully vaccinated. This eliminates the worrisome 72-hour time clock.

Alternatively, why not work with partners to have airport rapid testing facilities where travelers are processed on-site and can deliver results in under an hour. Airport transit hubs for tourists on the way to Namibia must be approached to provide this service; many already do for a fee.

There are likely tourists arriving for holidays in Namibia that cannot travel within their own countries due to Covid restrictions. Yet we let them in with a test paper. With variants raging worldwide, Namibia must not bend too far to pander to individual local businesses that are scrambling to make up for their deep losses and threaten to fire workers. Understandably entrepreneurs care about their bottom line as a priority; but, the government must put Namibian lives first.

Everyone in the country is sympathetic and understanding about the heavy hit absorbed by the Namibian travel and tourism industry. But the new normal is here – there is no return to pre-Covid tourism industry profits, arrival statistics, or employment levels. Coldly put, the strong survive the storm in the business world, and the weak do not. The government needs to step in with innovative mitigation plans to help those who are less viable. Otherwise, market conditions must prevail.

When world travel restarts, it will be many years before specific market segments again look to far-away holiday destinations. Re-building tourism to Namibia will be slow and cannot be hinged on dicey language changes in Covid-protection regulations while the variant is still raging.

The Ministry of Environment and Tourism should be urging the industry to update its thinking. New business models for Namibian tourism must be designed. Aggressive action to get Rapid Testing readily available and demand vaccination before travel should be a part of the new normal holiday travel solutions.

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