There is a glimmer of hope for South Africa’s tourism industry ahead of its summer season.
The industry took a beating since global Covid-19 lockdown restrictions and travel bans were implemented in March last year.
Despite strong support from local travel when restrictions eased later in the year, tourism operators were hard hit again as the government put stringent restrictions in place last December to flatten the curve of the second wave.
Last summer, many skipped travel due to the rising cases of Covid-19. This year will be different as many travellers are exploring after being vaccinated and the reduced lockdown levels.
While it will still take some time for tourism to recover to pre-pandemic levels, there are some positive signs of confidence in the market.
Among these is the return of flights by British Airways and Virgin Airlines that services the key UK source market. Other signs of recovery in the tourism and hospitality industry include the return of travel trade shows like Africa’s Travel Indaba and Meetings Africa in the first half of next year.
Data for September from global travel search site Cheapflights showed that searches for summer trips to South Africa made by international travellers spiked by 110% compared with the previous month, with more than a third of searches planned for December. Hotel search data reveals that the most sought-after destinations include Cape Town, Durban, Sun City, George and East London.
Hospitality properties also reported increasing occupancy rates last month, which they expect to gain momentum throughout the season.
Sandra Kneubuhler, the country sales director for the Radisson Hotel Group in South Africa, said they saw a substantial pick-up in occupancies from domestic and international markets.
“October has been our best trading month since the start of Covid, and November and December are pacing to beat it.
“October also marked the return of international corporate travel, which is a key travel component for all our hotels. International leisure has returned and, naturally, this impacts our Cape Town hotels significantly. In our key leisure hotels, we saw a split of 30% international/ 70% domestic during September. In October, we saw a split of 35% international/ 65% domestic. November looks likely to grow to 45% international travellers,” she said.
Radisson Blu Waterfront in Cape Town is reporting near-capacity bookings for the peak season.
General Manager Clinton Thom said they were optimistic about the upcoming summer and holiday season.
“We are almost at capacity for the traditionally high periods such as Christmas and New Year, with high occupancy rates for the rest of this year, too. This comes as a huge relief for us after a dismal season last year as a result of lockdown restrictions and the Covid-19 pandemic,” he said.
Inland properties are also reporting increased booking rates.
Executive manager for sales and marketing at Kruger Shalati: The Train on the Bridge Judiet Barnes said they saw keen interest from international guests.
"This property opened almost a year ago, and international guests who have been seeing pictures and reading the stories have been itching to book.
“Now, with the ease of travel thanks to ramped-up vaccination efforts and lower infection rates, travellers are booking their summer holidays in South Africa. We still have some space in December, but it’s filling up really quickly,” Barnes said.
Dimitri Maritz, general manager for Sanctuary Mandela, a boutique hotel in former President Nelson Mandela’s Houghton residence, said: “We are witnessing increasing interest amongst both international and domestic travellers for boutique hospitality products with personalised and curated itineraries”.
Maritz said the 2021 Global Wellness Trends report by the Global Wellness Index pointed to a growing interest in travel, hospitality and tourism experiences.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has been a baptism of fire for the idea of brand purpose – inadvertently forcing businesses to be more practical about social responsibility. The new normal means - for the hospitality industry at least – improving our hygiene practices, ensuring the safety and health of our patrons, and consciously propagating a positive impact from our business on the communities we serve and the people that work for us,” Maritz said.