It will take between two to three years for SA’s tourism industry, which is one of the biggest casualties of Covid-19 lockdown regulations, to recover to pre-pandemic levels and for international tourists to return to the country in their droves.
This is according to South African Tourism and the Tourism Business Council of SA (TBCSA) – the country’s two biggest tourism industry lobby groups – which also believe that the recovery of the industry to levels seen in 2019 will depend on how fast and wide the government rolls out Covid-19 vaccines.
In 2019, domestic and international tourism contributed R125-billion to SA’s economy, contributing 3% to the country’s GDP and supporting 750,000 direct jobs, according to SA Tourism figures. The industry’s contribution to SA’s economy in 2020 won’t be spectacular because the government imposed lockdown rules in March 2020 that initially grounded SA’s aviation industry, restricted travel, and locked borders to stop the spread of Covid-19. The tourism industry was also hit by the third ban on alcohol sales, beach closures, and curfews that restricted people’s movements and public life.
By October 2020, when borders were reopened by the government, the arrival of international tourists fell by 91% compared with October 2019, according to SA Tourism figures (see below graph). Travel by local tourists across SA and the arrival of tourists from neighbouring African countries have been equally in the doldrums.
TBCSA CEO Tshifhiwa Tshivhengwa said that to reverse the decline, the government should expedite its vaccine roll-out programme to include the wider public and workers in the tourism industry.
“If we vaccinate fast… that will send a signal to the international community that it is safe to come to SA,” said Tshivhengwa on Monday during a SA Tourism and TBCSA webinar about the recovery of the tourism industry.
According to the Department of Health, more than 10,000 healthcare workers had already been successfully vaccinated by Saturday 20 February under Phase One of the inoculations. This phase focuses on the vaccination of frontline health workers.
Tshivhengwa has called for workers across the value chain of the tourism industry to be prioritised – after healthcare workers – in the vaccination programme. Tshivhengwa wants workers in the tourism industry to be vaccinated in Phase Two, which focuses on high-risk groups, including the aged and people with comorbidities.
“We have been advocating for our members to get the vaccine. We can’t go ahead of medical workers. But in Phase Two we should be first in line. We have been the worst-hit sector. It is only fair that we are prioritised.”
Sisa Ntshona, the CEO of SA Tourism, supported Tshivhengwa’s view, saying: “If the vaccine roll-out is slow, then we [SA] will be perceived [by international tourists] as a risk and danger. And people won’t come to SA.”
Without international tourists, Ntshona said owners and operators of SA-based tourism facilities would have to depend on domestic and regional tourists. He added that there is a need for domestic tourism facilities to appropriately price their offerings for the local market and not cash-flush international visitors – as the industry had done before.
Forward booking figures of air tickets or leisure tourism facilities by international travellers are worrying, said Ntshona, indicating that the tourism industry is still fragile and not showing encouraging signs of recovery.
“The environment is so volatile. You can take a holiday in SA and your country of origin can announce new lockdown rules such as mandatory quarantine or Covid-19 testing. The world order in terms of travel is subdued.”
While the tourism industry has supported the government’s decision to reopen beaches and borders, lift the alcohol ban and extend Unemployment Insurance Fund benefits for laid-off workers, it wants Finance Minister Tito Mboweni to offer more relief for the industry in his Budget speech on Wednesday.
Like other departments, the government has cut the tourism department’s budget to free up funds to support struggling state-owned entities such as SAA. In the Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement in October 2020, Mboweni cut the tourism department budget by R17.2-million.
“The minister of finance needs to come out, protect tourism and finance the sector,” said Ntshona. DM/BM
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