With the constantly transmuting and resurgent Covid-19 virus, the question of whether life will ever return to normality is pertinent. Particularly for economic industries, such as the tourism industry, that has been battered by Covid-19, such question is urgent. The tourism-related sectors are too valuable to perish and should be resuscitated. But how? Asking how to resuscitate the Namibian tourism sector is another way of reflecting on the key impediments hindering sufficient travel and tourism activities at the moment. Understanding such stumbling blocks, and resolving them, could accelerate the recovery of tourism and economic activities. Hence, the question: what are the key factors that could significantly contribute to return to semblance of “normalcy” in the tourism industry?
Perhaps, two factors can be put forward as vital, namely, lifting of lockdown measures and travel restrictions as well as convenience and ease of air travel, and the associated airline availability.
Lifting of lockdown measures and travel restrictions
After the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, governments imposed physical distancing, through lockdown measures and travel restrictions, as measures to fight the spread of the virus. In other words, snowballing Covid-19 infection and death rates have led to national lockdown and travel restrictions being imposed in the first place. For instance, Namibia was placed under a full lockdown on 24 March 2020 with three Covid-19 cases detected. In the same way, increasing Covid-19 infection and death rates have led to a national lockdown and travel restrictions being imposed in the first place, so will decreasing Covid-19 infection and death rates lead to the lifting of lockdown measures and travel restrictions? But how will lower infection and death rates come about?
Medical advancement seems to suggest that a higher total number of vaccination doses administered in the total population (e.g. per 100 people) might significantly lower infection rates and, concomitantly, mortality rates as a result of Covid-19 infections. Vaccines are a technology that humanity has often relied on in the past to bring down the death toll of infectious diseases. For instance, we now know that the European Union (EU) has developed a “white” list of seven countries (as at 6 May 2021, these countries are Australia, Israel, New Zealand, Rwanda, Singapore, South Korea and Thailand) whose citizens can enter the EU freely. The “safe list” is reviewed periodically and adjusted depending on the latest Covid-19 developments in each country. Of course, the EU does not represent the whole world neither should all other countries follow their example. However, the same thought processes manifested by the EU are likely to be globally reciprocated by other countries in gradually reopening their borders. The “white” list is a list of non-EU and European Economic Area countries that are considered “safe” due to the low rates of infections in those countries. To stress this point, it is worthwhile comparing the vaccination and infection rates in the EU list of seven countries.
A higher total number of vaccination doses administered can have a psychological effect on people’s mindsets to resume sufficient travelling and tourism activities. Also, a higher total number of vaccination rates can steer government decisions to open up borders and allow unrestricted travel.
Is it a higher total number of vaccination doses administered in the source market (e.g. mainly countries in Central Europe, North America and South Africa in the case of Namibia) that will have a convincing effect on people’s decisions to resume travel or is it the higher total number of vaccination doses administered in the destination market, e.g. Namibia? The answer can be both, in other words, the higher total number of vaccination doses administered in both source and destination markets. But herein lies the dilemma: how will higher vaccination rates come about, especially to citizens in Africa with pervasive mythology, legends and excessive rumour-generation? As Thornberry (2004:199) suggested, gossip might be a cross-cutting phenomenon in Africa because of the storytelling and legend traditions and, thus, needs to be debunked through coherent and well-developed information campaigns.
Rwanda, as the only African country on the EU “white” list, presents an interesting case study. The question is what has Rwanda done so well, that the other African countries did not do, to be on the EU “white list” as a country with seemingly low infection rates.
Based on available unempirical data, such as online websites, Rwanda seems to have done three things well: an earlier-conceived vaccination plan, setting a target of vaccinating 60% of the population of nearly 13 million by the end of 2022. This led to Rwanda putting up logistical plans in advance, such as storage space for substantial doses before the vaccines arrived as well as purchased refrigerated vehicles to ensure that all corners of the country can be reached. The vaccination plan had a priority list to ensure that essential workers and people most at risk of infection and Covid-19-related death would receive the vaccine first, which included frontline healthcare workers, the elderly, individuals with underlying conditions, and people living in crowded settings such as refugees and prison populations. In addition, Rwanda put effort into fostering demand for vaccines. Especially in times of social media and “fake news”, an effective information and educational programme to convince citizenry is critical. The Rwandan health ministry collaborated with civil society, faith-based organisations, local authorities and young volunteers to disseminate a one-page fact sheet with information on the vaccines. Radio and TV channels were also used to provide further information on the vaccines. Lastly, to target vaccine hesitancy, the government set up a toll-free number so that people could report side effects or share positive stories.
Ease of air travel and airline availability
Tourists arrive at their destinations across continents mainly by air travel. Thus, second to the lifting of lockdown measures and travel restrictions, convenient air travel and the availability of airlines to transport people across continents is a key requirement.
Travellers would like to arrive at their destinations as quickly as possible, without much inconveniences and spending hours across countries and airports. In a way, this suggests direct flights, and not connecting flights, as a convenient medium. Pre Covid-19, Namibia has seen an unprecedented entry of international airline brands, such as Qatar Airways, KLM Royal Dutch, Ethiopian and Condor Airlines (The Namibian, 2016). This is in addition to the national airline, Air Namibia, and the neighbouring South African Airways (SAA) that were instrumental in flying tourists to Namibia. Air Namibia has since been liquidated and SAA has been put on business rescue. Both Qatar Airways and KLM Royal Dutch discontinued operations to Namibia.
Only Lufthansa/Condor Airlines and Ethiopian Airlines are still directly flying to Namibia, albeit with reduced weekly scheduled flights than before. What do the foregoing developments imply? That the ease of convenience of directly flying to Namibia has been diminished and, consequently, tourist numbers restricted, hence, to talk about resuscitating the Namibian tourism industry is to conceive a strategy that convinces the airlines that ceased direct flights to Namibia return. Without sufficient direct flights to Namibia, the chance of the tourism industry recovering to pre-Covid-19 levels will take many years to come, if not forever lost.