South Africa wants to be top tourist destination – soon
Tourism Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane expects that South Africa will soon become a destination of choice despite lingering uncertainty at the last minute about which countries will be on the Covid-19 ‘safe list’.
On the big stage on the lawn outside the Maropeng Visitor Centre in Gauteng, Tourism Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane heaved a sigh of relief.
“Two months ago, as the Covid-19 pandemic was at its worst, I was agonising over what this day was going to look like had the pandemic situation remained as it was,” she said during International Tourism Day celebrations on Sunday.
“Looking back at where tourism was two months ago, we have much to celebrate.”
Domestic tourism has since reopened and international travel looks set to restart this week. The celebrations were in Gauteng after authorities in the Northern Cape, where they were due to be held, said they were not yet ready to host the event.
Kubayi-Ngubane said the event was meant to showcase South Africa as a destination able to host big events while practising Covid-19 safety protocols. She said the dropping of the mandatory two-week quarantine period for arriving travellers who had tested negative for Covid-19 at most 72 hours before their arrival would help encourage tourism.
Many in the tourism business have, however, been waiting on edge for the government to announce the list of safe countries from which travel would be allowed, as mentioned by President Cyril Ramaphosa almost two weeks ago. The list will be revised every two weeks.
“The list will be announced by government as soon as it’s available, but it’s simple to follow what the list is likely to be,” the tourism minister said.
Leisure travellers from countries with high rates of infection and insufficient Covid-19 testing are expected to be barred from travelling to South Africa. Businesses in the tourism sector have, however, complained that such a list would cause too much uncertainty and that a negative Covid-19 test should be the only requirement for entering the country. But Kubayi-Ngubane said the government preferred to take this “one step at a time” so that it could “assess and understand the risks” and create a balance “between saving lives and livelihoods”.
She said the expectation is “that travellers will prefer to travel to countries that offer greater diversity of attractions so that they don’t have to travel to multiple countries to enjoy different activities”. For this reason, South Africa would be popular despite being a long-haul destination. “It offers diverse tourism products in addition to the great weather and the warmth of its people,” she said.
She said that with the declining risk of contracting Covid-19, South Africa “is arguably one of the safest tourist destinations in the world”. On Saturday, however, the SABC reported that the World Health Organisation had raised a red flag over the 6% increase in reported Covid-19 infections in South Africa in the preceding seven days.
Although the tourism sector has been in lockdown longer than many other sectors, Kubayi-Ngubane said she believed it “will be the key driver of the overall recovery of the South African economy” because it is characterised by “low barriers to entry for entrepreneurs”.
She said domestic tourism in the past month had paved the way for welcoming back international travellers, and she felt confident that, in the future, domestic tourism, instead of international tourism, could become the main pillar for South Africa’s tourism sector as is the case in some other countries. To encourage this, the government was looking at introducing a two-tier pricing system – “one that talks to international, and one that talks to local”.
A number of tourism attractions that survived lockdown already opened in August when some travel restrictions were lifted, but the Maropeng site, which includes a visitor centre, a boutique hotel and events facility and the nearby Sterkfontein Caves, remained closed because “there was intensive staff training” and they needed a test run before reopening, said Barba Gaoganediwe, spokesperson for the Gauteng Tourism Authority. These are the Gauteng government’s key tourism assets in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage site, he told Daily Maverick, and “we needed to make sure that everything is down to the tee”.
World Tourism Day was a good opportunity to do so, he said. Black Coffee live-streamed a concert from the Sterkfontein Caves, where the skull of Mrs Ples and a number of other fossils were found, while the celebration, attended by 150 people, was hosted at Maropeng. The sites are expected to open to the public on Thursday 1 October.
Gaoganediwe said the almost 300 accommodation and hospitality facilities in the Cradle were at 98% occupancy by Sunday, which meant the Maropeng Boutique Hotel had to be opened especially to house the media contingent invited to cover the event – including Daily Maverick. While the site has been well-maintained, there was no wi-fi as yet and only security staff were on site, doubling as porters, receptionists and Covid-19 safety officers.
In the old normal, many of the arrivals at this four-star hotel were international tourists. Many of those who come here are interested in paleo-science and they’re mostly Germans, Americans, Britons and Ghanaians who come for leisure travel as well as scientific collaboration. On a normal day, the site would also see many visiting school pupils, as the Cradle of Humankind forms part of the school curriculum. The kids will not be back this year, Gaoganediwe said, as they have too much work to catch up on after lockdown.
He admitted that the slashing of government funds for tourism marketing – done at the start of lockdown to redirect funds to healthcare – had had a “devastating effect” on operations. On the upside, however, the increased funding together with the collaboration between the public and private sectors since the Covid-19 outbreak augur well for medical tourism.
“The health investment will make us a competitive destination to support medical tourists when they come for quality treatments, especially from the rest of Africa,” he said. DM