Jump-starting tourism

As the drapes of the past two years of restrictions brought on by COVID-19 have come down, the tourism sector is providing a sliver of light to South Africa’s economic recovery.

“Over the past two years, measures to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to the devastating decline in tourism domestically and internationally,” says Acting Communications Chief Director of the Department of Tourism Seapei Lebele.

The pandemic’s arrival led to massive declines in foreign arrivals and revenue. Tourism’s contribution to Gross Domestic Product decreased from 3.7% in 2019 to an estimated 1.3% in 2020.

Further rubbing salt into the injury, estimated declines on direct employment in the sector exceeded 36% in 2020 compared to 2019.

“On the supply side, we observed losses in key tourism products and services, affecting gains made over the years to diversify South Africa’s tourism offering, with particularly painful losses to the SMME sector. These losses further negatively impact on our struggle for broad based economic transformation in this sector,” says Lebele.

Flickers of light

However, domestic travel contributed positively to demand in the COVID-19 period driven by campaigns and pricing targeted for the domestic market.

“This was positive and helped create better understanding within the market and through this exposure propelled the market to diversify its offerings,” says Lebele as she reflects on the last two years for the sector.

Pent up demand and the end of lockdown restriction saw South Africans undertake more domestic trips in the first half of 2022. Just last week, Cabinet emphasised the “critical” importance of domestic tourism to the recovery of the sector.

Cabinet was pleased that the hospitality sector recorded an increase in visitors post the COVID-19 period as 15.2 million domestic trips were undertaken in the first half of 2022. This was a 114% increase compared to the same period in 2021. This showed a marked improvement for the same period in 2019, which saw 8.6 million domestic trips taken.

“The tourism sector is starting to recover and is poised to bounce back. The first half of 2022 showed a staggering growth of 147% in arrivals reaching an impressive 2,285,746. Holiday trips have increased by 23.8% compared with the same period in 2021, and the average spend increased to 28.6%,” she says.

The biggest driver of domestic travel in the first six months of 2022 was the easing of COVID-19 travel restrictions.

This is good news for the country, which celebrates Tourism Month in September. Celebrated annually, the month provides a heightened month-long focus on the importance of the sector to the economy.

Tourism Month also encourages South Africans to travel domestically to sustain jobs and support the recovery of tourism in line with the Tourism Sector Recovery Plan.

Asked whether South Africans are in the habit of exploring their own backyards, Lebele says this is most definitely the case.

“Definitely. Although the Living Standard Measure (LSM) still shows mostly middle class and higher LSM levels undertaking trips instead of the lower LSM groups. This is a component that we are working to address urgently and continuously through our domestic awareness programmes.”

While the pandemic caused havoc, one of its positive impacts is that people are looking for local experiences.

“People are looking for local experiences and are spending more time with communities. We have developed a framework that advances community-based tourism. This framework will ensure that the community is at the core of development, ensuring that they are engaged and empowered,” she tells SAnews in an interview.

She adds that the country is still a destination of choice for travellers across the globe.

According to the Tourism Quarterly Performance report, total tourist arrivals went up by 146.8% for the period January-June 2022 compared to January-June 2021. This was a growth from a total of 926 262 tourist arrivals seen during January-June 2021 to 2 285 746 during January-June 2022.

Total tourist arrivals from the overseas market increased by 429.0% (+459 953) while tourist arrivals from the African continent increased by 109.8% (+897 124). In terms of volume, the increase recorded from the continent was driven by Zimbabwe (+245 674; 128.9%) followed by Lesotho (+207 504, 133.0%) and Mozambique (+185 250; 80.5%).

The department recently put out the draft Framework for Community Participation in Tourism (FCPT) for public comments. The FCPT in line with the Tourism Sector Recovery Plan, emphasises the importance of developing and reinforcing domestic, regional, and local tourism that is inclusive and prioritises community well-being.

Its objective is to ensure that tourism provides maximum benefit to communities where tourism serves as a catalyst. Minister Lindiwe Sisulu said the goal of the framework is to guide the department, provincial tourism departments, and other key tourism stakeholders in their efforts to encourage community participation in the tourism sector and, as a result, to increase the positive impact tourism can have on local economic development and community quality of life.

The framework says Lebele, has been well received.

“Since the draft was made available for public comment, the response has been low and the department used a variety of platforms to present the draft to larger communities/tourism stakeholders. However, we hope to receive feedback as we encourage more stakeholders to provide inputs.”

Seeking opportunities

Meanwhile, the department is working on a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Qatar which will be hosting the FIFA World Cup later this year to consider South Africa as a hub for the football spectacle. This as the Middle East is a critical market for South Africa.

The department says the collaboration will be very instrumental in ensuring ease of access to and from South Africa for travellers from this region while also assisting in elevating the country’s trade efforts.

“The MoU has been drafted and is undergoing the necessary processes of review and finalisation by the respective countries,” says Lebele.

The tournament will run from 20 November to 18 December.

World Tourism Day

South Africa this week joined the world in celebrating World Tourism Day on 27 September. Inspired by the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), World Tourism Day celebrations provide a platform for the South African sector to celebrate, reflect and commemorate its milestones in relation to the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

This year’s theme was declared as: “Rethinking Tourism – Opportunities Await” and addresses the progress made in the pandemic aftermath and how policymakers and the tourism sector have been able to adapt and rethink tourism to ensure the sector becomes more resilient.

The department has worked closely with South African Tourism to localise the international theme in order to align it to the country’s strategic focus areas and the department’s mandate.

“The reason for World Tourism Day is to cultivate and create awareness among society globally on the significance of tourism, and it’s social, political, financial and also cultural worth and value,” she says.

She adds that the theme re-emphasises the importance of everyone rallying behind new ways of doing things within tourism and travel and that domestic travel “is never again neglected at the expense of inbound tourism”.

“South African Tourism, the marketing agency of the department, has the Sho’t Left campaign which was launched in 2004 as part of its Domestic Tourism Strategy. The focus of this campaign is to create affordable travel for specific targeted segments within the domestic tourism market.

“It is hoped that the hype around the Tourism Month will culminate in bigger numbers of people being educated on domestic tourism, as well as benefiting from the various discounts offered by different entities.”

Thinking outside the box

Asked about what has been done to mitigate the negative impacts of the past two years, Lebele says the pandemic has challenged the sector to think outside the box and look for ways to build an inclusive and resilient tourism sector that will ensure the participation of women and young people in a meaningful way.

The department has since dedicated resources to support the recovery of the economy, especially the tourism sector in line with the Tourism Sector Recovery Plan. Projects have been implemented to protect and rejuvenate the sector including publishing the Norms and Standards for safe operations in the sector as well as providing training within the sector on these.

The department has also implemented the Tourism Infrastructure Maintenance programme at key tourism attractions. The programme refurbishes existing state-owned tourism assets such as precincts, protected areas, national and provincial parks, botanical and zoological gardens and heritage sites. The department also finalised the Baviaanskloof Interpretative Centre and Leopard Trail, which was funded by the European Union (R57 million).

With Tourism Month coming to an end, the department remains hard at work to ensure that South Africans of all walks of life benefit fully from different tourism and travel offerings.

Just as curtains are pulled back at the start of every new day, the stage is set for those with itchy feet to continue looking forward to enjoying the country’s scenic splendour, culture and warm summer days ahead.