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COVID-19 and what lies ahead for Nigerian travellers

The aviation industry and directly related services have been hard hit by the pandemic as airlines, airports, and embassies have lost significant revenue from ticket sales, landing charges, and visa fees. Although this comes as no surprise, a recent report suggests that African airlines might lose $6 billion and about 3 million jobs (direct and indirect) due to the pandemic. The impact to the wider tourism industry is expected to be higher since aviation makes up only around 40 percent of the tourism industry’s total revenue according to an aviation expert.

To limit the impact on its aviation industry, Nigeria resumed domestic flights, with measures taken to ensure the safety of passengers and travel workers. While there are significant economic advantages in reopening borders, surges in COVID-19 cases, and the inability to ensure social distancing and completely limit the high risks associated with air travel have slowed down Nigeria’s reopening of its international airspace for commercial flights. However, there is increased pressure to resume flights as local operators report huge losses with Nigeria’s largest airline carrier, Air Peace, announcing furloughs due to the pandemic.  

To help jump-start a recovery in their tourism sectors, Kenya, Rwanda, Senegal, South Sudan, and Tanzania have recently resumed international commercial flights amid a rise of infections on the continent. Some travel requirements for some African countries open for travel shows that travellers can expect the following conditions, at least before a vaccine is widely available:

  • Longer wait times: Checking in will require lengthier processes at the airports, and even domestic flights require that passengers arrive 3 hours before their flights
  • Absence of social distancing: The largest risk for air travel still remains the close proximity among passengers on flights. This has not been addressed with new policies. While the head of WHO in Africa has asked that airlines maintain vacant seats between passengers to ensure social distancing, this recommendation has not been adopted as allowing vacant seats will increase average ticket prices for consumers. 
  • Mandatory test results: Incoming passengers have been asked for COVID-19 tests which must have been carried out within 48-72 hours before travel. Rwanda has also offered on-site tests at airports for departing and arriving passengers
  • Quarantine: Countries like Kenya require all travellers to quarantine at their own costs at a government facility, during which they will be tested again to ensure that they are not asymptomatic. Passengers will likely pay for quarantines at government facilities

These requirements are not specific to African countries alone. Another safety measure is restricting entry to travellers from high-risk countries. For example, EU countries excluded the US from their list of countries where passengers can arrive from since the US is the world’s COVID-19 epicenter. Further, most African countries have been excluded from the EU’s list, as there are beliefs that African countries are not carrying out enough testing to estimate the true inflection levels. 

Some experts saw the closure of Europe as an opportunity for intra-African travel. However, this might only be a dream. For example, Kenya announced a list of 11 countries where passengers can arrive from, only five of which are African. Quite notable was the exclusion of Tanzania from Kenya’s travel list, although Kenya included other East African countries like Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Uganda. Tanzania was excluded as it is widely criticised for its poor COVID-19 response as the country stopped reporting infection rates and its President, John Magufuli, has shrugged off COVID-19 risks. In response to the travel ban, Tanzania enforced a ban on passengers from Kenya. 

Nigeria is not on Kenya’s travel list; however, there is some hope that it was only excluded because the country’s airspace remains closed. However, with Nigeria’s limited testing penetration, countries might maintain travel restrictions on Nigerian travellers, even after international flights resume. Thus limiting travel options for eager Nigerian tourists and others who hope to reunite with their loved ones, or return to business. Nigerian institutions will also be at the receiving end as with limited travellers comes lesser income flow for airports and airlines. Once again, increased testing, and a stronger public health strategy creates key social and economic advantages.

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