The South African government on Sunday decided against enhancing national safety restrictions aimed at stopping the spread of COVID-19, with scheduled cruises to be allowed to operate if cruise lines wish to do so.
The several dozen cruise itineraries scheduled from South Africa during the coming 2021/22 cruise season will not be banned by the government, despite the spread of a new COVID-19 variant.
The announcement by President Cyril Ramaphosa that the government had decided against another national lockdown came as welcome news to many South Africans, with the country to stay at an adjusted alert level one, but cruise lines are likely to be forced to cancel their itineraries anyway.
The announcement by South Africa earlier this week of a new variant that the World Health Organization has named Omicron prompted renewed travel restrictions against the country and rattled global stock markets.
The variant has an unusually high number of mutations, with more than 30 in the key spike protein — the structure the virus uses to get into the cells they attack. Scientists are concerned those mutations could make the variant more transmissible and could result in immune evasion.
Although the variant was first discovered in Botswana and then South Africa, it has since been reported in Hong Kong and Belgium.
The European Union, Japan, Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, the United Arab Emirates and other countries have all imposed outright bans on travelers from South Africa and neighbouring countries, or have introduced strict quarantine measures that make travel to South Africa unfeasible.
With many of these countries representing major cruise tourism source markets for cruise lines, its unlikely that the scheduled South African cruises this season will be able to go ahead, unless the World Health Organization in the coming weeks deems the new variant to be no less dangerous than others.
The new variant has led to a spike in cases in South Africa, and during his address on Sunday, President Ramaphosa warned that the country was likely facing a fourth wave of infections over the Christmas period.
He urged South Africans to get vaccinated as a result, to protect themselves, their communities and the country’s healthcare system, and suggested mandatory vaccinations may be introduced for some areas.
“We still have too many people who express doubt,” he said. “This is the time to get vaccinated.”
Only around 36% of South Africans have received both doses of one of the WHO-approved COVID-19 vaccines, which had already precluded many South Africans from booking cruises on ships homeporting in Cape Town and Durban this cruise season, as they all require vaccination.
MSC Cruises, the market leader in the South African cruise sector, has mandated vaccination for all guests across its fleet, in all regions.
MSC is likely to be the only cruise line that will not have to cancel its upcoming cruise season, as it draws the majority of its bookings from the local market, whereas other cruise lines, such as Norwegian and Azamara homeporting in Cape Town, rely on fly-cruise passengers from overseas.