At the start of 2020, South Africa’s tourism sector was teetering on a balancing beam. While the domestic travel market had improved in 2019 due to special-offer campaigns, international arrivals in South Africa experienced a decline of 2.3% as a result of a number of factors including water shortages in the Western Cape and safety concerns held by potential visitors to the country. But then, a major disruption suddenly hit the industry in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic, upsetting that delicate balance and plunging the sector into a dark and uncertain period.

Businesses began to shut their doors, some of them never to open again, planes were left sitting on the tarmac, and people became more acquainted with their homes due to lockdowns, curfews and other travel restrictions. This led to the loss of billions of Rands in revenue and more than 300 000 jobs since the start of the outbreak.

Now, as the world has slowly begun to open back up again and travel is back on the cards for many, the tourism and hospitality sector needs to fight the urge to go back to the way things were before the word “coronavirus” was uttered. This includes rethinking their business models and the way they provide services to guests, hotel owners and staff.

“When restrictions on travel and leisure were lifted early in 2021, the South African tourism industry let out a cautious sigh of relief. However, things returning to a sense of normalcy is not a sign that we can become complacent and go back to the way things were because the world, its economies, and people are not the same as they were before the pandemic,” says Senior Area Vice President for the Middle East and Africa at the Radisson Hotel Group, Tim Cordon. “The sector needs to take stock of the lessons learned over the course of this year and apply them to the changing industry so as to not only revitalise it but reimagine it.”

Here are some of the key lessons learned during 2021 along with insight into leveraging them to build a roadmap to recovery and growth in 2022.

Digital is no longer a nice-to-have

The COVID-19 pandemic has fast-tracked digital transformation across industries and the tourism sector is no different. Technology is enabling businesses in the sector to tackle the challenges they have long been faced with, as well as those resulting from the pandemic, head on.

“While local businesses had tentatively dipped their toes into digital waters prior to the COVID-19 outbreak in the form of a social media presence, the major disruption brought on by the pandemic presents a unique opportunity for businesses in the tourism and hospitality industry, and particularly SMMEs, to leverage powerful emerging technologies like AI and the cloud to become stronger and more profitable in a post-pandemic economy,” says Head of Marketing and Communications at travel tech company Jurni, Tshepo Matlou. “By integrating new technologies, the industry will be able to create and deliver new and more personalised products and services to ever-changing changing consumers, thereby turning the tide from uncertainty to innovation.”

As consumers increasingly expect information at their fingertips, along with ease and convenience when planning, paying for and managing their travel plans, the industry cannot afford to ignore the digital technologies that enable such customer experiences any longer.

“Consumers now expect personalised products, services, and experiences. Digital technologies enable such personalisation and convenience and in the long run, make customers feel more valued by the business,” says Cordon.

In response to this, the Radisson Hotel Group has created a new range of services called Radisson+ that will allow travellers to customise their stay through flexible, efficient and personalised services such as online check-in, a live chat function that allows guests to communicate what they want directly to the hotel at any time, and terminals within the hotel that enable guests to check themselves in and head straight up to their rooms without waiting in line.

We must lean into local

Domestic tourism has long been an effective instrument in generating employment and economic growth, but now with local travel expected to return to normal at a faster rate than international travel, it has become a critical tool in facilitating recovery from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Based on travel behaviour in previous crises, we believe that leisure travel that involves visiting friends and family as well as business trips will recover much quicker than international travel. Therefore, offering incentives such as discounts on guest rooms, free upgrades, added value and booking flexibility that allows for free cancellation will entice more people to travel more frequently within the country,” adds Cordon.

Thinking local means more than just providing special offerings to stimulate domestic travel. It also means honing in on and celebrating the local culture, people and environment where your business is located. This not only helps to differentiate your business as a destination but also allows both local and international travellers to experience and learn more about the local heritage and history.

Collaboration is key to reinvigorating tourism

Businesses in the tourism sector continue to grapple with the challenges introduced by the pandemic but are having to do so while contending with narrower revenue streams and tighter budgets. Additionally, governments are prioritising support for the industry due to its significant impact on economies.

However, executing these plans for recovery in a silo — with efforts by the private and public sector separated — could lead to fragmented results.

“South Africa’s tourism industry is in dire need of renewed investment in order to support its recovery and ensure that the sector, which owns a significant share in contributions to employment and national GDP, can meaningfully contribute to the economy,” says CEO of Motsamayi Tourism Group, Jerry Mabena. “The only way to achieve this is to prioritise and cultivate robust private-public partnerships where both sectors are working together towards a common goal.”

Most importantly, however, the tourism and hospitality sector must ensure that it is catering to the changing behaviour of travellers and tourists who are now looking for more isolated and relaxing travel experiences or to travel while working without it cutting too deep into their pockets, allowing for more spontaneity. Essentially, the industry needs to put the people it is serving first, in order to truly enable recovery and growth in the years to come.

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