Tourism takeoff: All dressed up and everywhere to go
Tourism Month is an opportunity to showcase Destination South Africa. There are signs of a recovery in the sector, but SA could be doing so much better. Other long-haul destinations, with less attractive offerings, are pumping energy and resources behind campaigns to attract international tourists.
Two years after the pandemic lockdowns, tourists are ready to hit the road, take to the skies and even finally go on a cruise. With the worst of Covid-19 behind us, it’s time to live a little and dream once again.
The signs are certainly indicating a bounceback for tourism. Pandemic responses, red lists and repeated lockdowns had sucked the life – and joy – out of an industry that had enjoyed sustained growth for decades.
In June 2022, the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) released its World Tourism Barometer, showing an increase of 182% for international tourism in the first three months of 2022 compared to the previous year. That’s still 60% below pre-pandemic levels, but by March, there was an uptick in international arrivals, indicating a strong second quarter coinciding with the northern hemisphere’s summer holidays.
It’s been fits and starts as the industry claws through the fallout of the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, global economic conditions and global climate change.
UNWTO’s report shows international tourist arrivals had increased by just 5% in 2021, due to travel restrictions in large parts of the world, which was still more than a billion short of pre-pandemic levels. This compared with the growth seen between 1980 and 2019, when numbers had skyrocketed from 277 million to nearly 1.5 billion, only briefly interrupted by blips caused by the SARS epidemic of 2003 and the global financial crisis.
Europe and the Americas are leading the recovery in tourism, UNWTO said, with Europe welcoming more than four times as many international arrivals as in the first five months of 2021 (an increase of 350%), while in the Americas (up 112%) arrivals more than doubled. The Middle East was up 157% and Africa up 156% between January and May 2022, compared to the same period in 2021, but remained 54% and 50% below 2019 levels respectively. In Asia and the Pacific, arrivals almost doubled (+94%), though numbers were still 90% below 2019.
The recovery is off a low base, and South Africa is, frankly, sucking the hind teat as other long-haul destinations with less attractive offerings are pumping energy and resources behind campaigns to attract international tourists.
Travel and tourism experts believe SA could – and should – be recovering far quicker, only if the public and private sectors stopped working in silos.
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SA Tourism, a division of the Department of Tourism, marked its “Sho’t Left” Travel Week last week which targets domestic travellers, but it was unable to provide data on hotel occupancy rates or other requested information by deadline.
David Frost, CEO of Satsa, the voice of inbound tourism, said they have noticed a good bounce back from the US and the UK, but SA is too reliant on luxury travel. “It’s one of our opportunities but we tend to only focus on the five-star market. Australia outperforms us, in terms of arrivals, with far less product, because business and the private sector plan, strategise and execute together. Here, it is exactly the opposite.”
Stats SA’s latest findings, released on 30 August, for June 2022, indicate 1,705,992 travellers passed through SA’s ports of entry/exit. They comprised 595,996 SA residents and 1 109 996 foreign travellers – 532 829 were visitors, but 133 279 were same-day visitors and 399 550 were overnight visitors (tourists). Of those tourists, 87 685 were from overseas; 304,016 from SADC countries; 7 015 were from other African countries and 834 tourists were “unspecified”.
Frost said although the sector might seem to be busy, a significant amount of the business had been postponed or rolled over from Covid.
Satsa’s trying to ascertain how much business is new and how much is rolled over. “We’re not getting the new bookings in from our key source markets, the UK and Germany. It’s of concern and we are particularly concerned about Q4 and Q1 of next year.”
Vanessa Ratcliffe, co-founder of Southern Destinations, operates in the luxury American market. She said while they were increasingly busy, a significant amount of work was in facilitating trips that had been postponed due to Covid. “Going forward, people have not been able to travel so now they really want to travel.
“The trend is towards the ‘greatest of all trips’. It’s being called revenge travel: people are over Covid lockdowns, they need to travel, but that’s all happening in the luxury segments. It’s not happening in the under three-star and below segments, with the big package trip groups, which is a pity because that’s not filtering down to the curio sellers and others who really need the money.”
Ratcliffe believes cost and the duration of travel is putting off less affluent travellers. “Clients who don’t have the budgets of a rich American, are going to take a little bit longer to get here. A long-haul destination like Southern Africa is not exactly first on the list for them.”
The red list fiasco has also hurt SA. “The UK is a really important market and many big operators over there have either shut down or lost staff. So there’s a capacity issue in terms of having skilled staff in our source markets,” Frost said.
For now, the evidence is anecdotal as Satsa is conducting a survey among its members, but it is concerned the bounce back is not strong enough.
While other markets such as Kenya are “pumping”, SA is lagging behind. “Where is the ‘South Africa’s cool to visit’ positioning, post-Covid,” Frost asked. “There’s nothing. As the private sector, we’ve just launched a cost-effective social media campaign, ‘Free to be’, saying don’t do short haul travel – it’s a nightmare – come to South Africa. We have the wide open spaces, it’s very chilled.”
And with the luxury market from the US still driving the industry’s recovery, the economic impact is not filtering down to the small and medium-sized operators, who desperately need the boost. SA has over 100 safe adventure tourism offerings, compared to New Zealand’s five, and yet the land of the long white cloud has put itself on the map as the adventure capital of the world, Frost noted.
Robert More, CEO and founder of the MORE Family Collection, observed that while the US luxury segment was still leading the market, source markets were also booking outside of normal seasons, which bodes well for SA. Demand from Australia, New Zealand and the Far East remains slow. “We are not seeing a deflection away from SA due to the energy crisis in the north. Europe has enjoyed an incredibly strong summer season, but we are certainly seeing increasing demand as Southern Africa enters its peak spring season.”
There are some exceptions in SA: The Western Cape is leading the way when it comes to promoting tourism in partnership with the private sector.
Cape Town Tourism (CTT) said forward bookings for accommodation were 32.9% for December 2022, increasing from 24% in May. Airport recovery is up 85% for international arrivals and 67% for domestic arrivals in August when compared with the same period in 2019. “The industry is optimistic that Cape Town will maintain the current recovery trajectory and are looking forward to a bumper high season,” a spokesperson said.
Last week, the City of Cape Town kicked off Tourism Month, with James Vos, the city’s Mayoral Committee Member for Economic Growth, and Enver Duminy, CEO of CTT, at Cape Town Ziplines, sharing details of a series of activations showcasing the city’s diverse destination offering, including the “Freedom to Wish” initiative for locals, which includes outings that cost less than R50.
Vos announced that airlines including Delta, United Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, Condor, Air France, Air Belgium, Air Mauritius, and Edelweiss are scheduled to start their routes to Cape Town International in coming weeks, while Lufthansa and KLM will increase flights for summer.
“The new Washington route from United Airlines alone is expected to generate up to R523-million in direct tourism spend for the Western Cape in its first year”, Vos said, adding 104 cruise ships, with almost 200,000 visitors, were scheduled to arrive over the 2022/23 cruise season.
Cape Town Tourism is also hosting business development workshops and networking events for its 1,000-plus members while the city government supports entrepreneurs with business assistance services and free upskilling classes.
The Tourism Business Council of SA has its first conference from 14 to 16 September at Sun City, to thrash out challenges facing the sector and help get it back on track. BM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.