When covid-19 tests could costs as much as US$6 000


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Joey Levy, a luxury travel adviser with Embark Beyond, was helping clients plan a long-awaited honeymoon. They wanted to go to Zambia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to see wild animals and Victoria Falls, staying at some of the region’s best lodges.

For that, they were prepared to pay five figures. But then PCR testing costs got in the way. Each country required a negative result 72 hours before entry, and the remote lodge they’d chosen in Zimbabwe said the only way they could arrange for one was to fly in a doctor—for US$6 000.

“I could have chartered a flight for the doctor and it would have been cheaper,” says Levy, who ultimately rearranged the itinerary to avoid the exorbitant fee.

In the middle of a pandemic, it’s one thing to travel to a remote place such as the savannas of Zimbabwe or the jungles of the Amazon and quite another to get the Covid-19 testing and paperwork you need to spend time there—even with help from a seasoned travel agent. It’s especially true for customers who hope to visit more than one country before returning home.

That’s left some returning travelers grappling with sticker shock, and it’s not always the travel provider’s fault.

Tour operators and resorts are using planes, boats, and automobiles to ferry tests to labs within the required turnaround times. It’s an any-means-possible approach to follow rules that aren’t always as simple as they sound. Sometimes, it’s still not enough for it to make sense for international clients—often in regions where their business is so needed.

Rapid antigen tests are also hard to come by in many countries—especially in places with limited health care access—leaving travelers with little option but costlier, time-consuming PCR tests.

For its six lodges and camps in Tanzania, eco-luxury safari operator Singita has had to ferry government-accredited Covid testers back and forth on bush planes and vehicles to collect nasal swabs for delivery in Dar es Saalam, more than 500 miles away.

Initially, that cost the company US$500 per test—a price tag passed on to consumers. More recently, Singita has managed to bring it down to $300, thanks to the opening of a Covid-19 testing lab in Arusha, some 375 miles closer to Serengeti National Park, and careful coordination of flights that carry both Covid testers and arriving or departing passengers.

Because of the time it takes to get tests to and from the lab, the Tanzanian lodges had to impose a three-night minimum stay—at about US$2 500 per person, per night. Typically, clients have stayed two nights and moved on.

“It was quite complicated, and we actually had to dedicate two people full-time on the PCR logistical planning,” says Jo Bailes, the company’s director of operations. “It cost a lot of man hours for the company.”

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Charles Rukuni
The Insider is a political and business bulletin about Zimbabwe, edited by Charles Rukuni. Founded in 1990, it was a printed 12-page subscription only newsletter until 2003 when Zimbabwe's hyper-inflation made it impossible to continue printing.

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