by David Ryan on April 1, 2020
5 min read

Dear Mr President,

Surrounded by overwhelmingly dire news and constant negativity, it’s very easy to spiral downwards into a state of depressed helplessness. Yes, this is a very complex and difficult situation to manage and deal with and we are likely to live and feel the effects of Covid-19 for many years to come. But that is only if the short-sighted actions of your government don’t bring an end to our beloved Tourism Industry first.

One thing is for certain, even in these strange times, the incredible combined strength of all South Africans is heart-warming to witness. The countless people sacrificing so much for those who are vulnerable and banding together to defeat this foe is incredible. As South Africans, we are a diverse nation, with a checkered past, but there’s one thing we know for sure; when the chips are stacked against us, our desire to unite and conquer is far stronger than anything ever put in our path.

It’s times like these that we look to the government for help and leadership, not to make our job of navigating these unprecedented times exponentially more difficult. The backbone of our Tourism Industry is air access, and we must recognise that SA Airlink’s survival is inextricably linked to the survival and growth of tourism, in both our country and region post Covid-19. The policy decisions by both SA Airlink and SAA over the past few days have dire consequences for our industry and brand South Africa and point directly to SAA’s illiquidity and our government’s inability to honour its commercial agreements.

The result of this is that, as of 20 April 2020, SA Airlink will no longer honour any tickets issued on SAA paper. While we have no problem re-issuing tickets, Business Rescue Practitioners Siviwe Dongwana and Les Matuson have seen it equally fit to simply change agreed terms and conditions and no longer honour refunds, but offer credit notes instead.  While this is a clear contravention of the Consumer Protection Act and the guarantees that were put in place by SAA with both IATA and the Department of Transport, it points directly to the illiquidity of SAA. The consequence of your government’s failure to honour its commercial agreements is resulting in R360 mill of government debt being laid squarely at the door of the Tourism Industry to absorb, in the midst of this Covid-19 crisis.

You asked us to do our best to preserve jobs – we have responded. You asked us to encourage guests to postpone and not cancel – we have responded. Our industry has done an exceptional job to limit cancellations and keep people employed as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Tour Operators and Suppliers have come together and are working with the common purpose to limit cancellations, but our government’s inability to honour its commercial commitments, respect the law and the guarantees it put in place, while protecting vital infrastructure, has the possibility of undoing all of that.

We as an industry are being forced through these policy changes to absorb SAA’s illiquidity and have little alternative but to pass on this R360 mill cost to our clients, with devastating consequences for brand South Africa. We may never recover from this breakdown in trust and an inability to hold the government accountable to our own laws. These were tickets booked with expressed terms and conditions. South Africa cannot afford the reputation of reneging on standard terms and conditions. If we are forced to absorb this debt and in so doing pass it on to our guests, we should expect large numbers of cancellations and chargebacks; further setting back our recovery. All because SAA is demonstrating its illiquidity by reneging on its commitments, and changing its terms and conditions, without due consideration to the law.

Our reliance on billionaires and the relief offered by our government through this Covid-19 crisis is testament to poor governance and structural reforms that are long overdue. While we pull together, to support you and our country and to ensure we defeat this foe, is it really too much to ask our government to simply honour their commercial commitments and the rule of law? Our government is wilfully withholding tourism sector funds for services it knows it cannot honour. It’s tantamount to theft, and the consequences on our industry, our economy and our brand are dire. If we want a Tourism Industry post Covid-19, from which to build our economy, I urgently ask you to intervene in this mounting crisis and settle the commercial dispute between SAA and SA Airlink, to avoid our industry and our country this embarrassment. We ask that you settle it in a manner that doesn’t place SAA’s illiquidity at the door of our industry and ensure we have a flight network in SA Airlink that can service tourism as we emerge from the Covid-19 crisis.

In times of adversity, we need to look for the positives for guidance and inspiration. And there are many. We are learning to love and care for our elderly. We are learning to treat our healthcare workers and teachers with the respect they deserve. We are learning to show compassion and tenderness for those less fortunate than us and there is a rising unified spirit of a nation determined to succeed, to act with kindness and, above all, to act with love. We look to you to ensure there is a Tourism Industry on the other side of this Covid-19 pandemic by addressing the actions and commitment of our government today. We are stronger together, but we need your urgent assistance in averting an additional crisis for our industry.

David Ryan - CEO and Founder Rhino Africa Safaris