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Tourism holds on for dear life

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Lifestyle

Members of the tourism and hospitality industries protesting harsh lockdown measures were dispersed with water cannons and stun grenades by police in Cape Town on 24 July.

This moment symbolised the battle by these industries for survival in the storm of COVID-19, and the fighting spirit of many individuals who believe that tourism in South Africa will survive and thrive in future.

Before the coronavirus crisis, “the overall South African tourism landscape was on a positive trajectory, and Cape Town was on track to have record international arrivals,” says Searl Derman, the owner of Aquila Private Game Reserve. “The first real impact of the global crisis was felt here the moment the president addressed the nation and announced a state of disaster. Demand was literally wiped out overnight.”

Derman’s company had to wind down its operation and cut overheads and expenses to the bone, and his staff has borne the brunt. “Although government announced massive stimulus packages, these weren’t applicable to the many tourism owner-run businesses. More than 500 loyal staff have been put onto UIF (unemployment insurance fund) programmes due to temporary business closure, and many of them are still awaiting the TERS (temporary employer/employee relief scheme) benefits for May and June.

“The tourism industry is on its knees, and the sector is dragged about even further by ongoing litigation and legal battles with insurance companies,” he says. “The net result is that many businesses will close.

“Many articles and industry leaders have said that South Africa might be set for a strong recovery with its outdoor activities, but the reality is that Cape Town is a long-haul destination using hubs across the globe. Various governmental quarantine measures might halt these travel plans, and it will take time for the airline industry to recover its international routes. We might not recover for years. But as with any veld fire, it gives rise to new life in the aftermath.”

Marco van Embden’s company, Timeless Africa Safaris, operates as a bespoke inbound travel company, planning trips throughout Africa and South Africa for guests from all over the world.

“In mid-February, we started feeling the effects of our international guests wanting to postpone their travels. Our last guest left South Africa on 26 March. Along with the entire tourism industry in South Africa, we are effectively under 100% lockdown. We have projected zero revenue for 2020.”

The company has implemented a number of measures to survive. “We have managed not to retrench anyone thus far, and all staff have taken significant, voluntary salary reductions to keep everyone employed for as long as we are able. All staff work from home at reduced hours. In February, we implemented an emergency budget and cut costs to the bone. We established a war cabinet which meets monthly, the focus of which is to manage these turbulent seas.”

He believes his company will survive “if government opens tourism this year or at least gives an indication of its intentions to open tourism in the short term”.

He also thinks that the tourism industry in South Africa can survive COVID-19. “The industry is resilient as it is based on the positive principles of improving the lives of the people and wildlife it supports. How well it survives depends on our government and the regulations. The industry is ready to welcome overseas visitors in a safe and responsible manner.”

Van Embden believes “there will be a long-term negative effect”.

“Many businesses won’t survive or re-open. The industry on the other side will be very different to the beginning of 2020.

“In the medium term, everything depends on the willingness of government to be supportive of the industry, and of course, it will depend on the airlines taking to the skies once again. South Africa can ill-afford to lose the momentum of our tourism industry, which allows more than one million people to be employed and contributes more than 8% of the GDP of our country.”

Navigating a storm with no end in sight, Van Embden says, “is very tough on all of our mental health. We have implemented a mental-well-being initiative for all staff, as this toll is often unseen while not working within an office environment.”

Van Embden says the community could support tourism by being “ambassadors for your country. Sing its praises, share its good stories, and ask your global connections to help us thrive.

“Our community has been most supportive during these times. Our welfare and communal organisations are doing a superb job at many levels,” he says. “The Gesher Fund has been established to assist companies like ours who are in distress – this will save businesses, jobs, livelihoods, and lives.”

For Terri Garfinkel, the lockdown couldn’t have come at a worse time, as her lifelong dream, Mdluli Safari Lodge, opened in January in an exciting and unique partnership with the local community.

“We were off to a brilliant start. Because there’s nothing like it inside the Kruger [National Park], forward bookings were really strong – reaching occupancies of more than 60% in year one. Six weeks after opening, we were required to close the lodge in accordance with the lockdown. The impact has been devastating – not only can we not re-open yet, but almost all forward bookings have been cancelled.”

The lodge is a 50-50 partnership with the local Mdluli community, who live in villages adjacent to Numbi Gate. The land on which the lodge is built is owned by the Mdluli Community Trust. It’s located inside the south-western borders of the park, she says. The community were forcibly removed off the land in the late 1960s, and have since been issued a successful land claim. The lodge’s operations have a direct and indirect impact on this impoverished community. More than 90% of the lodge’s team are employed from the community.

In May, the lodge launched a relief effort for the local community, raising close to half a million rand and distributed food parcels. The lodge staff received salaries for March, April, and May. For June and July, they received a reduced amount supplemented with the TERS claim from government.

“We are hopeful the lodge will re-open late this year,” says Garfinkel. “The opening in January was the culmination of a 20-year journey fuelled by tenacity, commitment, and passion – and we see this challenge as another hurdle. Our sole focus at the moment is on domestic travel, and we’ve implemented numerous campaigns to drive awareness.”

She also believes the tourism industry in South Africa will survive, “but it will take time, and it might look somewhat different”.

“It’s no secret that this has been a massive blow to the sector – and the lockdown regulations seem ill-conceived and inconsistent when it comes to tourism and leisure travel. This is causing huge damage with a significant ripple effect. The year 2020 and probably 2021 will be very difficult for the sector, but things should return to normal by 2022.

“Ultimately, South Africa has a highly desirable portfolio of tourism destinations which will come back into their own in due course.

“Industry bodies have developed comprehensive guidelines to ensure optimum safety for staff and guests. This is more than PPE (personal protective equipment), it’s a whole-of-lodge experience both front and back of house,” Garfinkel says.

On dealing with challenges on a day to day basis, she says, “A crisis like this really tests what you have – as a team, as a brand, and as an offer to guests. We work closely and collaboratively, tapping into the multi-disciplinary skills of each team member. If I reflect on what we’ve achieved since lockdown, I feel proud of how we’ve rallied. It’s pushed our creativity and lateral thinking.”

Says Derman, “There’s light at the end of the tunnel. The exact deadlines are uncertain, and the situation is fluid. But the pandemic will end, and the fear of the virus will subside. We learn to reinvent ourselves during these times and every day, however difficult, must bring us hope.”

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Lifestyle

Habonim’s return to machaneh ‘a dream come true’

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The Habonim Dror slogan “Don’t call us thy children, call us thy builders”, rang true this week, when the Jewish Zionist youth movement announced that it would hold a machaneh this December, taking the brave step of building something new and vibrant in a post-pandemic world. Machanot were cancelled last year for the first time in decades – a huge blow to movement morale.

In a video titled simply, “We are going home”, Habonim announced on Sunday, 17 October, that after 23 months of waiting, a machaneh will finally be held at its Onrus campsite. It will be called “Lachlom Mechadash” (To Dream Again) because the movement sees it as a dream come true. It will be shorter (from 9 to 20 December), with fewer people, and everyone will need to be vaccinated.

Rosh Machaneh Aaron Sher explained how this dream became a reality. “From the moment our va’ad poel [steering committee] for machaneh was elected this year, we were thinking about how we could make machaneh a reality. After consultation with medical professionals and those who have had summer camps overseas, many permutations of machaneh were drawn up.

“Some were on the more optimistic side, and some with more conservative thinking,” he says. “Throughout this time, the South African Zionist Federation [SAZF] was holding meetings for the youth movements, the Community Security Organisation [CSO], and other community figures to discuss how machaneh could happen, often attended by [local virology expert] Professor Barry Schoub. A common point was the vaccination of adolescents. It left room for optimism for December. Without these meetings and the support of these communal bodies, December machaneh couldn’t happen.”

With the announcement on Friday, 15 October, that vaccination would open to 12 to 17 year olds in South Africa, “the va’ad poel and our staff were in a panic, but excited. A golden opportunity had fallen into our laps that would allow us to bring machaneh to fruition. It’s almost impossible to describe the happiness we felt.”

Asked about the impact of not having machaneh or in-person events, Sher says, “In a word, devastating. Habonim Dror thrives on in-person interaction. For generations, we have been a space for Jewish youth to come together to have fun, discuss world issues, create change, and become strong leaders. Online activities don’t bring the ‘Habo magic’ that we need to feel.”

Habonim Manhig Wayne Sussman says, “The impact of not having a machaneh last year or any major in-person events has been absolutely devastating. Not just to Habonim, but to all South African youth movements. Camps and in-person events are a core part of the South African Jewish youth experience. They’re one of the things which make our community so great, and it’s absolutely critical that our kids return to camp sooner rather than later.”

Since the announcement, he says, “I have seen a youth movement come alive. I’m seeing renewed vigour, renewed energy, which has been lacking amongst our very brave and committed youth movement leadership for the past 20 months.”

Sher says “a full COVID-19 protocol policy document has been prepared for our machaneh with the help of medical professionals and those who have successfully run summer camps overseas. This will be available as soon as our sign-ups are open so that all parents and madrichim know exactly how we are keeping safe before they sign up.”

Says Sussman, “Of course, we’ll also limit numbers, and we are going to launch this properly and open sign-ups only once we’ve properly engaged with community leadership and the CSO.”

“Vaccination will be required by anyone on the campsite, a negative COVID-19 PCR test will have to be presented on arrival, and general COVID-19 protocols will have to be adhered to,” Sher says. “Anyone who tests positive will have to isolate immediately and will unfortunately be sent home. Those who have been in close contact with them will have to isolate and await a PCR test.”

What will stay the same and what will be different? “Fortunately, with a vaccine blanket over our campsite, a lot of what we love about machaneh can continue,” says Sher. “There will still be ruach [spirit], Havdalah, the beach, and everything we love about machaneh, just with some slight adjustments.” The youngest age groups, Garinim and Shtilim, won’t be able to attend.

“Should there be a fourth wave during December, Habonim Dror is committed to ensuring that we are able to adapt or at worst cancel,” he says. “The safety and health of our campers will always come first. We will make sure that we make the correct decisions in the interest of our community.”

Says Sussman, “Of course, there’s a chance that we might have to pull the plug on this. But as long as that door is open, as long as kids know that if they get vaccinated, if they’re responsible, and if they really want to attend machaneh, we’re going to do what we can to give them best summer.”

Since making the announcement, “We have had an overwhelming response from parents, kids, bogrim, and ex-chaverim all over the world,” says Sher. “People have been reaching out offering support and services. I couldn’t be more thankful to our Habonim and Jewish communities. We’re going home.”

SAZF executive member Anthony Rosmarin says, “December machanot have, for decades, played a vital role in strengthening Jewish identity and building young leaders. Recognising the impact that COVID-19 has had on the ability to host these pivotal annual events, the SAZF created a platform that brought together youth movements, medical and security advisors, and stakeholders to discuss the feasibility of December machanot.

“Given the fluid nature of the ongoing pandemic, this assessment is continually being updated and we recognise that each youth movement must come to its own determination as to whether or not to move forward with camp preparations for 2021. We are committed to providing support and advice on how best to approach this complex decision in a safe and responsible manner.”

The mazkir of Netzer South Africa, Jason Bourne, says “Netzer has decided that it won’t be running a full, in-person summer machaneh this year. Instead, we will be running day camps in Cape Town, Durban, and Joburg. Though vaccinations are being administered and cases are declining, we feel that there are still too many unanswered questions to have a sleep-away camp. As things unfold and more people are vaccinated, we may open a small weekend sleepover element to our day camp experience for older, vaccinated participants only.”

A community leader, speaking anonymously, says “Bnei Akiva would love to have a camp at the end of the year but it’s looking at all the medical and logistical issues. No decision has been made and over the next few days, it will explore it all carefully and come to a conclusion.”

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Lifestyle

Hatzolah’s invasion tour brings freedom back

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I’ve never thought of us as the invading type, we’re more “people of the book”, but for five amazing days, even if in our own minds, we invaded the roads of the Overberg region on the 2021 Hatzolah Cape Invasion Tour.

As a first-time invader, and yes, I have to say it, in a COVID-19 year, I wasn’t sure what to expect and how I would feel being in a hotel for five days with a group of guys, many of whom I didn’t know, and riding in a mask-less peloton. This was in addition to the real fear of whether my “pins” (legs) would hold up for the 500km of riding and more than 5 000m of climbing that was necessary to claim a full invasion.

What I hadn’t taken into account was the “Hatzolah factor”. Here is an organisation whose mission it is to care, keep our community safe, save our lives when called upon to do so, and in doing so, to help create “a future that looks brighter together”.

In some respects, the riding was secondary. The operation to keep the invaders safe in all aspects was the real show, and the stakes were high for Hatzolah, which has been our knight in shining PPE (protective) suits throughout the pandemic. And what a show it put on! Led by rosh riding, Mark Kruger; rosh logistics and anything else you could think of, Sharon Newfield; and rosh medical, Yudi Singer, the Hatzolah team of Bernard Segal, Justin Gillman, Albert Ndlovu, and Sisqo Buthelezi were simply exceptional. I can tell you from personal experience that to have Segal following you in a red ambulance and then pull up next to you and offer you a “red ambulance” (an ice-cold Coke) when you’ve been dropped by the group is really quite remarkable.

As were the unbelievable marshals who worked the traffic and kept us moving safely in every direction, and our bike mechanic, Sylvester, who kept our Dogmas, Canyons, and Treks rolling smoothly on the open road. An essential function for a group full of Jewish bike mechanics.

The riding was exceptional. From the spectacular descent into Gordon’s Bay to the golden fields of the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, from Pringle Bay to Villiersdorp and Hermanus, we were treated to the best of our beautiful country.

One of the biggest challenges for the invaders, on top of riding and climbing, was to return from the invasion weighing less and not more than when we started. Avron of Avron’s in Cape Town made sure that was almost impossible. The food was top class. How do I know? No one complained.

Not everything was smooth sailing. On day three, one of the more accomplished riders in the group, who was beginning to glow like a lava lamp, discovered that he had been shmeering himself with sanitiser and not sun block, but even that was quickly fixed.

And just when it couldn’t get any better, it did. Each evening, we were treated to a virtuoso performance of Pavarotti, Bocelli, and beautiful chazonis from one of – actually probably the only – multitalented rider on the tour, Ezra Sher.

I almost forgot. How do you know you’ve got Chabadniks on the ride? You have a shul set up complete with a Torah and guys lining up to put tefillin on in the morning. Love it!

From the COVID-19 tests that were required from all riders prior to arriving at Arabella, to the dedicated dining area, to the support teams and riders who made up the invading party of 2021 in a COVID-19 year, it almost felt normal. Like we were back.

This year’s tour was as much about the riding as it was about re-claiming just a little bit of our freedom that has been taken away from all of us over the past 18 or so months. It was about being careful, which allowed us to be carefree. It was about being part of a remarkable community of riders supporting the remarkable organisation that Hatzolah is. There aren’t many quotable quotes when one thinks of Arnold Schwarzenegger, but when it comes to the Hatzolah Cape Invasion for 2022, one springs to mind. “I’ll be back!” May the wind be at our backs.

  • Herschel Jawitz is on the board of the SA Jewish Report.

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From despair to reunion – COVID-19 travel lock opens

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“Please – next time he’s going to kill her! Help me get my daughter away from him and to the UK so we can keep her safe!”

“It’s just not fair! I can’t get anyone at the embassy to answer my emails! He’ll die before we get to see him!”

“My ex-wife isn’t mentally stable and I have been granted full custody by the court, but I can’t get a visa appointment to get my child to me in the US!”

“The South African High Commission said I should have applied for retention of citizenship but my Irish citizenship isn’t through yet and now I’m stateless. Dirco and Home Affairs won’t help, and my baby and I need to get home to her dad. Now what?”

“I don’t have it in me to carry on! It’s been nearly two years and will never end. I can’t bear the pain and the hospitals are just too expensive. No one here in Malaysia cares about me! Kim, please help me!”

Daily calls like these are the reason I do what I do around the clock. I find ways to get as many as I can to their loved ones. While most are elated that holiday destinations are at long last opening up, I empathise with those relieved that they are finally in sight of an end to the desperation they’ve been subjected to. For them, it has felt like an eternity since COVID-19 sabotaged their lives.

The calls and messages come in so frequently, I’ve seldom had time to reminisce over the successes of those I’ve been fortunate to help. It’s a blur of calming one individual after another. Each one has a story, and each story deserves to be patiently supported.

I take them on, but dare not take them in. Occasionally, I catch myself empathising too deeply, and have to remind myself that my shoulders need to remain strong to carry that person. Because later, another will need reinforcement to get through the night, and they will get past this moment.

Tourism isn’t simply about Mr and Mrs Newlywed being able to go on that dream honeymoon, or the kids getting to run on the white beaches of Mauritius. For me, it’s about travel agents eventually being able to feed their children; airline staff who have been sitting at home penniless getting that long-awaited call that they are needed back at work; hospitality staff at long last being able to feel the exhaustion they’ve missed from full hotels.

The list goes on of those who not only have taken far too many months of strain on their overdrafts, but who can wake up with a sense of pride and meaning they have long forgotten.

Embassy staff are slowly being granted permission to help as their hands are untied from the bans and regulations they had no say over. I feel for those always having to be the bearer of bad news. I know the relief of finally being able to deliver good news to the members of Community Circle Home SA for a change.

For many, it’s the injustice of it all that hurts them – being forced to pay the exorbitant cost of hotel quarantine in order to get home for someone who has lost their job, or having to stay two weeks in another country simply to get to their final destination, away from work, and risking infection at each step – these are among the issues coming to an end for South Africans.

Governments are slowly peeling away layers of regulations. The opening of these countries means fuller, cheaper flights. We’re seeing more cost-effective options for COVID-19 testing-to-fly allowed and in many cases, no testing at all. Right now, we’re mostly able to go where we want to, when we want to, at more affordable prices, and above all, with less stress.

For those who are fully vaccinated, the world has started to open up at a rapid pace. But for the vaccine hesitant, their choice is all but made for them as their need to get to loved ones in many cases depends on those two shots they weren’t sure they wanted to have. No one should be forced into a choice like that based on travel, but the alternative is a weight they cannot bear.

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged our insatiable need for instant gratification, a need we’ve grown accustomed to having met. Most find the simple act of waiting their hardest battle. I wonder if we’ll remember the lesson thrown our way, or slip back into old habits, forgetting to appreciate each moment afforded to us.

The United Kingdom has finally removed us from the red list. The United States just announced that it is lifting our ban. Israel and Australia are following close behind. The vaccinated are being welcomed into more and more countries, with options for the unvaccinated fewer, but in some cases still possible with additional testing or self-quarantine. The pressure is slowly releasing. The stress of navigating the minefield of regulations is becoming easier to manage. We hold space for those who wish the country they need to open would “just get on with it”. Till then, Community Circle is here to help you to take that strategic pause, work through the regulations you need to navigate, and travel with you.

For those traveling, stay safe! Airports and destinations are filling up at a time when the virus is still active. As tourism opens, countries are experiencing spikes in their numbers and at any given moment, variants or bans can suddenly re-appear. South Africa still insists on a negative PCR test, which can prove difficult for those who recover from COVID-19 abroad and continue to test positive due to intermittent shedding. COVID-19 insurance cover is an essential, and I urge you to remain plausibly cautious when budgeting for trips abroad that may take an unexpected turn.

But above all, relish every new memory made with the loved ones you’ve missed so dearly, and spare a thought for those who will hopefully be allowed to enjoy the same thing soon.

  • Kim Kur is the founder and lead volunteer for Community Circle Home SA on Facebook.

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