Businesses in South Africa’s tourism industry are feeling bullish ahead of the peak summer season, spurred by increasing vaccination rates, growing numbers of international travellers, and lower lockdown levels.
The industry which, according to data from Statistics South Africa, accounted for 4.5% of total employment in the country in 2018, has taken a beating since global Covid-19 lockdown restrictions and travel bans were implemented in March 2020. And despite strong support from local travel when restrictions eased later in the year, tourism operators were once again hard hit as the government put stringent restrictions in place last December to flatten the curve of the second wave.
But, as the mercury rises ahead of summer 2021, South African tourism operators say they have something to smile about. With around a third of adults vaccinated, and the country currently on lockdown level one, the tourism industry is on track for an improved peak season.
While it will still take some time for tourism to recover to pre-pandemic levels, there are some positive signs of confidence in the market. Among these is the return of flights by British Airways and Virgin Airlines which service the key UK source market. Other signs of recovery in the tourism and hospitality industry include the return of travel trade shows like Africa’s Travel Indaba and Meetings Africa in the first half of 2022.
Data for September from global travel search site Cheapflights showed that searches for summer trips to South Africa made by international travellers spiked by 110% compared with the previous month, with more than a third of searches being made for travel in December. Hotel search data reveals that the most sought-after destinations include Cape Town, Durban, Sun City, George and East London.
Hospitality properties have also been reporting increasing occupancy rates in October which they expect to gain momentum throughout the season.
Sandra Kneubühler, the country sales director for the Radisson Hotel Group in South Africa, says: “We have seen a substantial pick-up in occupancies from both domestic and international markets. October has been our best trading month since the start of Covid, and November and December are pacing to beat it.”
The group has also seen an increase in the number of international corporate and leisure travellers.
“October also marked the return of international corporate travel which is a key travel component for all our hotels. International leisure has returned and, naturally, this impacts our Cape Town hotels significantly. In our key leisure hotels, during September we saw a split of 30% international/ 70% domestic. In October we saw a split of 35% international/ 65% domestic. November looks likely to grow to 45% international travellers,” she said.
Radisson Blu Waterfront in Cape Town is reporting near-capacity bookings for the peak season.
“We are feeling optimistic about the upcoming summer and holiday season. We are almost at capacity for the traditionally high periods such as Christmas and New Year’s, with high occupancy rates for the rest of this year, too. Needless to say, this comes as a huge relief for us after a dismal season last year as a result of lockdown restrictions and the COVID-19 pandemic,” says hotel General Manager, Clinton Thom.
Inland properties are also reporting increased booking rates.
Executive manager for sales and marketing at Kruger Shalati: The Train on the Bridge, Judiet Barnes, says: “With travel restrictions across the world easing up in recent months, we are seeing keen interest from international guests in Kruger Shalati: The Train on the Bridge. This property opened almost a year ago and international guests who have been seeing pictures and reading the stories, have been itching to book.
“Now, with the ease of travel thanks to ramped-up vaccination efforts and lower infection rates, travellers are booking their summer holidays in South Africa. We still have some space in December, but it’s filling up really quickly,” Barnes said.
Dimitri Maritz, general manager for Sanctuary Mandela, a boutique hotel in former President Nelson Mandela’s Houghton residence, says: “We are witnessing increasing interest amongst both international and domestic travellers for boutique hospitality products with personalised and curated itineraries”.
Maritz adds that the 2021 Global Wellness Trends report by the Global Wellness Index points to a growing interest in travel, hospitality and tourism experiences which are conscious of the Covid-19 pandemic, global warming and socio-economic challenges.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has been a baptism of fire for the idea of brand purpose – inadvertently forcing businesses to be more practical about social responsibility. The new normal means – for the hospitality industry at least – improving our hygiene practices, ensuring the safety and health of our patrons, and consciously propagating a positive impact from our business on the communities we serve and the people that work for us,” he says.