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Is SA tourism sector in crisis? Low occupancy rates, lack of international travellers paint a bleak picture

Even with new regulations allowing some international countries into South Africa, the sector is battling. Picture: MichaelGaida/Pixabay.

Even with new regulations allowing some international countries into South Africa, the sector is battling. Picture: MichaelGaida/Pixabay.

Published Oct 23, 2020


The pandemic has brought many travel and tourism businesses to their knees. Some have reduced staff while others are contemplating whether reopening would be an option when their key travel markets are not allowed to travel to South Africa.

I've been on two travel trips in the past week. One was thriving with profit while the other had no bookings for November, which would have been a busy month had it not been for the pandemic and travel bans.

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Domestic travel seems to be booming.

Tim Cordon, the Senior Area Vice President for Middle East & Africa at Radisson Hotel Group, explained that post-Covid-19 recovery will be fuelled by a rebound in domestic tourism.

"We can see that families and solo travellers were among the first segments of the market to start travelling and making reservations again. With the return of travel and tourism, it has been crucial to add value to existing offerings. Customers are now looking for incentives like discounts on guest rooms, free upgrades, added value, and booking flexibility that allows free cancellation. We can also see a lot of re-imagined loyalty programs with increased offerings in an attempt to stimulate demand through an existing customer base.

"The impact has been significant for us, as for all hotel players. However, we have relied on our fundamentals to adapt quickly to the crisis. In particular, we have made our corporate responsibility a strong focus of our action. Our main concern, in addition to the health of our customers and stakeholders, has therefore been to maintain all of our positions in order to support employment," he said.

Cordon revealed that Sub-Saharan Africa has been more resilient as a trading destination than Europe.

However, he said hotel occupancies varied significantly from hotel to hotel.

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"Our hotel occupancies for the upcoming summer months vary greatly from hotel to hotel (dependant on location). They are significantly behind normal levels due to various factors including the delay in the announcement of countries which are allowed to travel and various key feeder markets not making it onto the list.

"In the future, travellers all over the world will certainly be much more aware and careful, and safety is a priority for everyone. Based on previous crises, we believe that leisure travel will recover more quickly, especially travel that involves visiting friends and relatives and business trips," he added.

Neil Markovitz, CEO of the NEWMARK Collection, said progress was relatively slow and that the travel bans may be a result of that.

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"We are only seeing domestic uptake for this year. The positives are that the main carriers are flying and we are seeing a sprinkling of international travellers. We are hoping that the government relaxes the 'so-called' banned countries to create more certainty for international travellers wanting to visit and holiday in South Africa. We are struggling to understand the current rational and view of government with regards to the 'so-called' banned countries and hope that sanity prevails, and we open up to our main feeder markets.

“Of course, testing should be a prerequisite before entry. The domestic market can only play a supporting role, but the responsible re-emergence of international travel is urgently needed," he said.

Other tourism businesses have come up with out of the box ideas to stay afloat.

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Like Collin Thaver of Southern Africa 360 who started the South Africa 360 Luxury Holidays and Exclusive Tours during lockdown to entice domestic travel.

This concept has helped save jobs and contribute to new ones.

"The bold move was largely inspired by the call from the government to promote domestic travel to South African residents," explained Thaver.

"Our team had lengthy virtual meetings with all our current and new suppliers to assist us with kick start rates to support the industry. In turn, we took to paying a higher than normal sales commission to local travel agents to motivate them to support us and assist with their margins. We wanted to offer local South Africans good value for money deals to explore their own country.

"We still have a long way to go. We are looking for new and inspiring ways on how we can work through the travel distribution channel to put out our message and offers.

“The road to recovery is still a long way off, but we are committed to seeing this through and strengthening our brand in both the inbound international and domestic market travelling”, said Thaver

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