The Impact of COVID-19 on South African Tourism

What will the pandemic do to South Africa's Tourism Industry?
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The Tourism Sector in South Africa has been coined the New Gold, and in President Cyril Pamaphosa’s 2019 State of the Nation Address, the President outlined an ambitious target of more than doubling South Africa’s international arrivals to 21 million by 2030.

However, in the last few months, this has all changed. There is no denying that the impact of the coronavirus on the global tourism industry has been devastating. 

Even before the virus hit African shores, countries relying on international tourism started feeling the pinch as bookings were cancelled and holiday plans put on hold. As early as the end of February, the Guardian reported that hotels bookings in Bali had plummeted by 40 000, simply due to a ban on incoming flights from China.

Today, the situation is dire.

South Africa’s tourism industry hasn’t been spared. International travel has been one of the contributing factors to the global pandemic and the government has been praised for its swift and decisive action as soon as the first cases were reported.

To stop the spread of COVID-19, the government announced a lockdown across South Africa – Photo by Tim Johnson on Unsplash

The first step the government took was to ban all international travel from high-risk countries such as Italy, Iran, South Korea, Spain, Germany, the United States, United Kingdom and China. This also extended to restricting entry of travellers who have visited those countries in the last 20 days. Some may have viewed these restrictions as extreme, but as the crisis unfolded abroad, the logic became clear. 

Initially, these international restrictions didn’t deter South Africans from travelling locally. This, however, all changed the day the President announced the national lockdown. Today, the country is at a standstill, and tourism is non-existent.

The question we face now – will the South African tourism industry survive this.

The Economic Impact

The first factor to consider is how the COVID-19 pandemic will impact the economy. Long-term job security in the tourism sector, disposable income of local travellers, and the survival of SMME (small, medium and micro-enterprises) in the tourism industry such as restaurants, guesthouses and tour operators will all be compromised.

The lockdown is already having a devastating effect on the South African economy, not to mention the effect of travel bans on local tourism. Many businesses won’t survive this – across all sectors. They’re looking to the government for help.

All shops and businesses will be closed, except for pharmacies, laboratories, banks, essential financial and payment services – Photo by Hello I’m Nik 🎞 on Unsplash

The financial support promised by the government has become quite a controversial topic. Many businesses were left fuming as they failed to fall within the scope of the relief packages. 

One thing is certain, to qualify for any funding businesses need to be registered with SARS. In the end, around 81 000 SMME have applied for support, and this essentially means more people in the informal and SMME sector will be under the tax net. Due to the standstill in the tourism sector, we can be sure that many of those seeking government support will be from the tourism sector, or supporting industries.  This reform is better for everyone in the long run. 

Not Business As Usual

Once the lockdown was imposed, things changed drastically and it’s now an “adapt or die” situation. Luckily, South Africans are adapting rapidly. 

One of the very first changes we saw was the adoption of online solutions, especially in terms of marketing. Many in the tourism industry have opted to share the beauty of our country with others through online platforms, promoting future travel. This has in fact become a global trend.  Creating awareness will boost the tourism industry in the long run and help it bounce back after the pandemic is under control.

South Africa is using this opportunity to send out a strong, but welcoming message – stay home today, so you can travel later. If they wanted to create an emotional connection, I personally believe it’s working.

A message from SA Tourism – Stay Home Today, So You Can Travel Later

South Africa – A Future Travel Destination

We need to consider how the world will view South Africa as a future travel destination, once the pandemic is over. Even before the pandemic, South Africa, with all it has to offer, was facing harrowing crime statistics, as well as already controversial visa regulations resulting in fewer visitors. This is now amplified by the repercussions of the state of disaster we currently find ourselves in.

After the lockdown was announced, many reports emerged of panicked and stranded international visitors in crowded South African airports as well as quarantined cruise ships. Has South Africa treated its visitors well enough during the crisis to encourage a future return? 

In the case of the quarantined cruise ship, those onboard were tested and cleared for a return home within a little more than a week – not bad considering the circumstances. They were also offered the option of flying back to their respective countries. It seems South Africa is prioritizing the safety of people above all else.

Locally, the tourism industry as a whole has handled the situation with the same determination and efficacy as displayed by the presidency. Many local airline carriers, as reported by Business Insider, offered free changes, cancellations or vouchers even before the lockdown was imposed. Their efforts are to be applauded.

Another example of how South Africa is adapting to serve comes from one of our local tourism associations. Cape Town Tourism has been working towards better crisis communication since the Cape Town water shortage back in 2018 and their efforts have now come in handy. They have deployed some of their frontline information staff to manage live online chats, securing employment and offering remote work opportunities to their staff while still addressing the concerns and questions of visitors.

Regarding how South Africa has dealt with imposing the lockdown, it seems like we have managed to handle the situation on par with international standards, if not better. Yes, there have been mistakes, but overall the world has applauded our efforts.

The Future of Tourism in South Africa

What will tourism look like 6 months from now? A year? How will this crisis reshape the way we do business? Honestly, we can’t say. It all comes down to “flattening the curve” and beating this thing. In terms of tourism in South Africa, we were heading into the low season to start, and hopefully, through these drastic measures, we will be open for local business sooner rather than later. 

If our efforts to contain the spread are effective we can look to China for a glimpse of the potential future. In China the pandemic seems to be under control, with new cases at a standstill. Restrictions are being lifted, and already there are early signs of recovery in the tourism industry. 

According to Bloomberg, hotel bookings had increased by 40% in the first week after restrictions were relaxed. Local flights had also increased by 230% in comparison to the previous month during the lockdown. 

If this is anything to go by, South Africa needs to continue with the lockdown and continue to find local solutions to fight this pandemic. South Africans are hardy, we’re fighters and doers. Where there’s a will there’s a way, ubuntu will prevail and “n boer maak n plan”. 

The government’s mandate under normal circumstances is to use tourism to boost the economy, create employment and promote South Africa. I foresee a drive to boost local tourism once this is all over, including promotions, and incentives for hosting larger events as is already being discussed by the National Convention Bureau.

Nothing in the near future is going to be easy, but together we can make it through and emerge better than before. Our country is still our country. Its beautiful landscapes, neverending coastlines, abundant wildlife and diverse cultures aren’t changing. What will change is how we travel, and how seriously we take on the responsibility of sustainable tourism. 

I think we’re ready for the challenge.


Aron is an avid blogger and digital marketer. In the evenings you can find him running along the promenade or tackling one of the many books on his shelf. He enjoys a whiskey at the end of a hard week.

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