Travelers jump through hoops to leave South Africa, as Omicron strain hits

Sofia Christensen, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Nov 28 2021 12:24 AM

Passengers queue to check in for a flight Sumaya Hisham, Reuters
Passengers queue to check in for a flight on Singapore Airlines at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, November 26, 2021. Sumaya Hisham, Reuters

Eyes welling up with frustration and relief, Belgian Valerie Leduc and a friend walked from a ticket counter at Johannesburg international airport having secured a flight seat home via Ethiopia.

But they will only be flying out in 3 days’ time.

"We were feeling like we have committed a crime," said the 30-year-old Antwerp resident, rejected from her original flight home via Zurich after Switzerland shut it doors to all non-citizens coming from South Africa.

Their new tickets cost them 1,000 euros ($1,130) each. 

Leduc and her friend Sander Verstraelen, later sat down in a café reflecting on the previous 24 hours.

Travelers left stranded after a slew of countries banned flights from South Africa on Friday, amid concerns about a new coronavirus variant, are jumping through hoops to leave.

They filled airport cafés on Saturday, sipping cappuccinos, while frantically phoning their embassies and travel agents.

Groups of strangers shared stories and power plugs. 

Many are seeking tickets to fly via other African nations, such as Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo — which have not yet blacklisted South Africa — while navigating complex last-minute COVID-19 testing requirements.

Several Europeans waited in a long check-in queue for an afternoon flight to Addis Ababa.

"We first tried to change our original flight but this wasn't possible at all," said Laura Herde, a 25-year-old student from Berlin just about to start a hiking trip with friends when the travel bans hit.

"There was no room on any of the flights so we needed to book a new one," she told AFP.

 "We took the first one available."

- 'Complete mayhem' - 

A group of German geologists stood in front of a coronavirus testing tent for their second swab since Friday.

Unprepared for the rush of passengers, the center had run out of printer toner ink.

"They are not able to print our results or to send them per email and the manager is at home," said Robert Giebel, 36, laughing in exasperation and shaking his head. 

"We now need a PCR test which is not older than 24 hours," he explained, yet only a vaccination certificate was required previously.

His colleagues kept checking news and government websites on their phones to keep track of constantly evolving entry regulations.

They were unsure whether they would have to quarantine in a hotel after their return or be allowed to isolate at home.

"It's all a bit crazy," said geologist Ole Schroeder, 32.

But "at least they are letting us fly home".

A young South African woman named Nica Kruger stood in line at a nearby ticket counter, worry clouding her masked face.

She was desperately trying to join her partner in Dubai before the United Arab Emirates' travel restriction took effect.

All of the day's possible outbound flights were fully booked.

"This is complete mayhem," said Kruger, 26, tearing up as she explained she had tried several airlines.

Air Mauritius "actually made me pay for a ticket then moved the flight to tomorrow," she added.

"I don't even know if it's even worth it," she sighed, moving closer to the counter.

Less than an hour later, Mauritius announced a month-long ban on flights from South Africa.

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