South Africa’s list of high-risk countries, where tourists remain banned from entering the country, has been criticised for being arbitrary and potentially damaging to the local tourism sector.

The list of 60 countries includes the likes of the United States and the United Kingdom, which are sources of some of the biggest tourism spend in the country – while all of Africa is free to travel across borders.

According to the Bureau for Economic Research (BER), rough estimates from Stats SA show that about 16% of total overnight visitors come from countries currently rated as high-risk.

The US and UK represent about 8% of all overnight tourists. While this is relatively low, visitors from these countries tend to spend more than tourists per visitor from Africa, the group said.

By contrast, around 73% of overnight tourists in 2019 were from fellow Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries, the group noted.

South Africa’s so-called ‘red list’ applies only to leisure and tourism travel, with business travellers with scarce/critical skills, diplomats, repatriated persons, investors and people participating in professional sporting or cultural events from the high-risk countries allowed to enter the country.

However, it has been argued that the list is generally arbitrary given the fact that South Africa itself is also still largely on the high-risk country list for many countries – including those listed in the high-risk group – which would have deterred travel in any case.

South Africa’s red list

Of the 60 high-risk countries listed by South Africa, only 18 actually allow South Africans to visit them for leisure purposes.

For some counties, travel is possible, but not directly – such as Malta or Montenegro, which would require a citizen from a ‘red list’ country (such as South Africa) to spend 14 or 15 days in a ‘green list’ country before entering.

As with South Africa’s opening of borders, countries that do allow travel for leisure and tourism purposes do not do so unconditionally, and will require travellers to either submit recent negative Covid-19 tests, or be subject to a mandatory quarantine period. has running updates of country policies regarding international travel – with very few allowing entry for South Africans. Most travel restrictions relate to tourism and leisure travel only, with exceptions for repatriation, returning citizens, students and medical emergencies.

In Iran, travel is permitted, but no tourist visas will be issued. This is a similar situation in the US (and related territories such as Puerto Rico) where there is no explicit banning of South Africans from travel – but the country and local offices are not currently issuing visas for leisure travel.

Almost all territories caution travellers to keep their movements to essential travel only.

Note: As travel restrictions are changing on an ongoing basis, the below is as reported at 4 October 2020, with the latest available information from each respective country. Many countries have indicated reviews to lists in the coming weeks.

There are many regions – which South Africa has classified as low or medium risk – that are still restricting travel from South Africa.

This includes countries like Canada, Japan and most of Europe, which uses a centralised database to categorise high-risk countries. The definition of high risk can differ from territory to territory, but countries like Russia classify it as a 14-day cumulative Covid-19 infection rate higher than 25 people per 100,000 people.

According to the EU database, South Africa is still high risk, with a running 14-day cumulative infection rate of over 34 per 100,000 population. While this is still relatively high, it is down significantly from the 290 per 100,000 population recorded during the peak of infection in July.

But this still means that South Africans looking to travel abroad for leisure and tourism purposes will be banned from entering countries like France, Italy, Switzerland and most of the EU members that use the same database.

Some EU countries have gradually opened their borders for non-essential travel since July – however, this has only been for visitors from the EU/EEA and the UK, with few exceptions. Most advisories recommend contacting local embassies, where applicable, to confirm the status of any travel restrictions in place.

Confusion and complexity

According to the BER, while South Africa’s careful approach to reopening its borders is understandable, the complexities of the exceptions are not helpful in aiding the recovery of the battered tourism sector.

“Indeed, airline Emirates cancelled all planned flights to SA on Saturday with reports claiming this was due to uncertainty about whether airline crew would have to adhere to the same regulations as tourists, and thus provide a recent negative Covid-19 test.

“Reports on Monday suggest that the matter has been resolved and that the airline will resume flights to SA,” it said.

Industry voices, meanwhile, have warned that, although welcome, the new policies have opened the door to a lot more complexity in travelling abroad.

“Complexity, complexity and more complexity,” said Andrew Stark, Flight Centre Travel Group managing director for the Middle East and Africa. “The ever-changing travel regulations and requirements from the different destinations across the world make for a travel landscape that will be difficult to navigate.

“For now, it is clear that business travellers have more freedom than they had in the last six months, while leisure travellers are somewhat more restricted.”

Stark cautioned that while the reopening of the borders is a vital, positive step in the right direction and will allow South Africans to reconnect with their loved ones, the return to travel is not going to be immediate and holidaymakers should not throw all caution to the wind.

“There still remains a grey area surrounding outbound travel for South Africans to high-risk countries that would permit them entry.”

“We’d advise South Africans to book their non-essential leisure travel now for next year. For this year, consider keeping it close to home with regional travel on the African continent and to the Indian Ocean Islands,” he said.

Read: What you can expect from South African travel over the coming months: experts