Pandemic a catalyst to growth of sustainable tourism
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By Sisa Ntshona
BEFORE the Covid-19 pandemic, the tourism sector was identified globally as an area that could contribute to the economic and social goals of various countries.
This was due to the fact that the sector supports job creation, including employment for those with a lower skills base, as well as women and young people.
The UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) observed that international tourism is now at the level it was three decades ago, largely due to the lockdowns implemented after the pandemic hit.
In the past year, tourist arrivals have dropped 74%, $1.3 trillion (R19 trillion) has been lost in tourism revenue, global gross domestic product has lost roughly $ 2 trillion, 1 billion tourist arrivals have been lost to the global market and at least 100-120 million direct tourism jobs are at risk.
The South African tourism market has not emerged unscathed. It is now well documented how the more severe lockdowns that have led to the cancellation of religious commemorations as well as holidays and travel, have impacted the tourism sector.
The rands and cents, while staggering, also translate into the impact on the lives and livelihoods of ordinary South Africans. According to the Tourism Business Council of South Africa, more than 50 000 tourism businesses have closed down temporarily or permanently in the past year. Furthermore, income from accommodation decreased by 65.5% in the period ended in November 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.
The UNWTO has observed some trends in the sector as a consequence of the pandemic. One is that domestic tourism has shown positive signs in many markets since people tend to take trips closer to home. Travellers go for local “staycations” or holidays.
Travellers have also been giving more importance to creating a positive impact on local communities, increasingly looking for authenticity. Nature, rural tourism and road trips have emerged as popular travel choices due to travel limitations and the quest for open-air experiences.
Meanwhile, travel recovery has been stronger among younger people. The mature travellers and retirees segment will is among the most affected in the industry.
South Africa can use these insights to reshape our tourism offerings as we try to restore the sector and navigate the complexity of surviving in a Covid19 world along with the safety protocols such as wearing masks, avoiding large gatherings and ensuring good ventilation, especially, when using public transport, and maintaining social distance.
There is a cliché that there a silver lining to every cloud. In this case, the behavioural interventions that are required to keep us safe make us more amenable to new tourism experiences.
The reduced prices and increased availability due to the absence of many international visitors means that South Africans have an opportunity to experience many hidden treasures in our country. This is good for the recovery of the domestic tourism sector while also increasing of sense of national pride and patriotism in our magnificent country with all its diversity.
Some of our unexplored or lesser known treasures include, among others, our hiking trails and national parks; provinces such as the Northern Cape whose beautiful beaches would have surprised us when we saw footage during December 2020; the Great
Mapungubwe Heritage Route in Limpopo, which tells the story of an Iron Age settlement and kingdom which flourished between the 11th and 13th century and was perhaps southern Africa’s first state; and the stone wall settlements of the Bokoni in Mpumalanga which emerged around 1500 and lasted until the 1820s.
Interestingly, the option of being in more open, better ventilated spaces leads us easily to the outdoors and with this, considerations of more sustainable tourism. Market research undertaken by the UNWTO suggests that due to Covid-19, people will seek out adventure travel, natural spaces, and safe and quality experiences.
It further recognises that while nobody can predict how the pandemic will evolve, nor the recovery time line, stakeholders can identify plausible scenarios and create action plans that work towards sustainable tourism.
There are opportunities for the sector to promote new tourism offerings that help South Africans stay safe while exploring the hidden gems in our country.
The pandemic, while being the cause of a loss of jobs, income and with this, quality of life, in South Africa and globally, it may also equally be the catalyst for a big reset of how we do tourism, and how this impacts on our natural environment and our emotional, psychological and physical well-being. There is therefore an opportunity for the tourism sector – the formal and informal elements – to begin to prepare for this shift towards a more sustainable way of doing business.
Sisa Ntshona is the chief executive of South African Tourism
*The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL or of title sites