New COVID strain hits S. Africa tourism hopes

Rushdi Harper's tour company in Cape Town was just starting to recover from lockdowns in South Africa.

He had high hopes for a bumper Christmas season, looking forward to an influx of tourists from the UK, U.S. and Germany.

Then Omicron struck.

"Fifty percent of our bookings actually were cancelled for December alone and at the moment for January it's about 40% that have been cancelled. So in terms of giving you figures, that would turn up to, as a small business like ours, we're a very small business that's probably about a million rands of business that has been lost."

Harper has had to sell his house to raise funds to keep his business afloat.

And his story is repeated in tourism hotspots around the country.

Travel restrictions imposed by the EU, UK and U.S. mean South Africa is cut off from the region's three biggest markets.

That with holiday businesses already reeling from a succession of lockdowns.

Total foreign arrivals slumped 71% in 2020.

Now Cape Town Tourism chief executive Enver Duminy says Omicron is already taking a real toll:

"So the impact is significant, not just from an economic perspective but I think the significant job losses that we're really beginning to see. There are lots of small businesses that are suffering, that were hoping that this Christmas would be the best Christmas for them."

A snap survey of tour operators by the country's tourism business association says cancellations already total about 1 billion rand - or about $63 million.

That figure doesn't include flights, restaurants and accommodation - and the organisation says it could easily triple.

South Africa's holiday firms are not expecting a merry Christmas.