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Tourism in South Africa: an industry under lockdown

January 11, 2021

South Africa's tourism sector continues to suffer under the weight of COVID-19. And there's no end in sight, as new restrictions dampen all hope for a recovery to even begin. Sertan Sanderson reports from Cape Town.

Cape Town city center
The stalls on Cape Town's Greenmarket Square used to be a bustling tourist magnet - before COVIDImage: Sertan Sanderson/DW

Just days before New Year's Eve, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that the country was going back to tougher lockdown measures once more. Millions of South Africans felt more than annoyed at the reintroduction of an alcohol ban in the midst of the festive season — as well as a curfew starting at 9:00 p.m. each night. 

But among those that took the news really hard were the 722,000 South Africans working in the country's struggling tourism sector. Following months of lockdown and immigration bans they had just recently returned to their jobs — if they still had them — at the beginning of November, when South Africa fully opened its borders for the first time since the COVID-19 lockdown in late March 2020.

Liesl Matthews
Travel agent Liesl Matthews says 2020 was her worst yearImage: Privat

"Our arrival numbers are still incredibly low — they’re 90% less than the previous year," explains Liesl Matthews, one of the owners at the Southern Destinations travel agency in Cape Town, which focuses on bespoke travel solutions and safaris throughout southern Africa.

"When March 2020 arrived, it all came crashing down in a heap," she said.

Shop local

Matthews spent the first four months of the lockdown period working on "moving reservations from 2020 to 2021, and trying to convince clients that this was the best course of action."

St. George's Mall in Cape Town
Cape Town's city center feels deserted by tourists - compared to pre-COVID-19 standardsImage: Sertan Sanderson/DW

Karien de Villiers, a chef working at the luxurious Phelwana game lodge in the northeast of the country, observed a similar pattern: "Working in the tourism industry, we had so many guests canceling their bookings in 2020. A few of them, we could encourage to move it to a later date, but with the uncertainty of this virus and what is going to happen down the line, most of them still canceled, and refunds had to be done," she told DW.

To keep the cash flow going, Phelwana focused on the local market instead, offering discounts and special packages for South Africans: "Under normal circumstances, South African guests make up a very small percentage of our clientele, as we mostly have foreign guests staying with us. That being said, South African travelers have really stepped up and thrown their support behind the tourism industry by booking weekends away and exploring their own country."

Cape Town banks on domestic tourists

You booze, you lose

Leena Hendricks*, duty manager at a guesthouse in Franschhoek — an upscale gourmet town in the Cape Winelands — says that because of severe lockdown restrictions earlier in 2020, she couldn't really benefit from plugging into the local market: "Usually, after March our quiet season begins but you still get a lot of local travelers, who come for wine tastings and festivals. But this year, everyone was restricted to their homes during lockdown. For months, we couldn't do anything."

And with the announcement of the latest COVID restrictions, Hendricks says that she fears a repeat of the same situation this year:

"I could just cry. This is terrible. When the president announced this new kind of lockdown, we got five cancellations the next morning. People come to Franschhoek to drink wine and to eat at the restaurants. They don't want to come here if they have to be back in their rooms sober before the sun has even gone down. This is a terrible, terrible idea."

Franschhoek in the Western Cape Province
Franschhoek is considered a premier destination for wining and dining - but during lockdown, there's no such thingImage: imagebroker/imago images

Unprecedented crisis situation 

South Africa has repeatedly been ranked as a top global travel destination over past decade — ever since the FIFA World Cup took place there in 2010. Various travel publishers have named the city of Cape Town in particular as the best place to visit in the world for years running.

But the city by the Cape of Good Hope had to weather a tourism-related crisis not to long ago already: in 2018, following a prolonged period of drought, Cape Town had to severely restrict its water consumption, affecting visitor numbers. "We did get some cancellations during the water crisis, but we were always able to convince people to still travel to places that had access to water, and cross-sell to other destinations around Africa. With COVID, the whole continent was on lockdown, the whole globe. There was no cross-selling. There was no traveling at all. There was no tourism," Liesl Matthews explains.

Cyril Ramaphosa
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa made no friends when he announced renewed COVID restrictionsImage: AFP/WHO

Leena Hendricks also tries to draw comparisons to the water crisis, stressing the difference in severity: "Most people didn’t care that their towels could not be washed every day during the water crisis. But they will care if they can have a dop or not," she says, referring to a commonly used South African slang term for alcohol.

"I tell you this though: I am not removing the wine and beer from the mini bars. What happens in the rooms is none of our business," she chuckles before adding: "I just don't know how I'm going to ring up the wine during this alcohol ban."

The politics of COVID-19

The outlook for the tourism and hospitality industry remains uncertain, but South Africans pride themselves in finding creative solutions to whatever problems might come their way. In Sea Point, a popular tourist quarter in Cape Town, one restaurant resorted to serving alcohol in teapots in a bid to improvise around the ban.

Supermarket in Pretoria
For the time being, wine and other alcohol remains locked up behind bars in South African supermarketsImage: Sertan Sanderson/DW

The owner of the restaurant in question doesn't want to comment or be named for fear of reprisal, but says that banning something will naturally only make it more desirable — while costing jobs not only in the long-term. 

Liesl Matthews agrees: "Trying to explain to our staff that they need to go on a reduced salary was probably one of the most difficult conversations we have ever had. We know that they all need to feed their families, too. Sadly, we laid off two of our staff, but I do know that many other companies had to reduce their staff more radically."

"The freelance tour guides literally went from working one day to absolutely nothing the next, which continues all the way through to today. And there was very little help from the government, if any."

Read more: Coronavirus: South Africa's social divide and economic woes exposed

A future of uncertainty

The repercussions of the COVID-19 crisis on the tourism industry draw circles that go well beyond the realm of luxury travel: With more than 16 million international visitors annually in the recent years prior to the pandemic, the tourism sector made up for 2,8% of South Africa's GDP  in 2017 ($103 million in total numbers), making it larger than the agriculture, forestry and fishing industry — even during times of an economic recession in the country.

More than 10% of the South African workforce was employed in tourism in 2013 (during the last census). That number has likely risen in the years since — until COVID-19 hit. 

Karien de Villiers
Chef Karien de Villiers had time to explore new recipes during lockdown - with no one to try her creationsImage: Privat

"Every person employed in tourism supports another five on average, so the knock-on affect this tourism shutdown has had is catastrophic," Liesl Matthews told DW.

Karien de Villiers adds that while her employer didn't have to let go of any staff, she feels that her industry remains particularly at risk: "People are scared to travel at the moment, and some countries have reinstated their own travel bans again, and that also affects us. I know that most businesses, especially small businesses, were hit hard when the world had to stop like this, but I feel the tourism and hospitality industries suffer the most."

Leena Hendricks says that with no end to the pandemic in sight especially in South Africa, which hasn't even begun its vaccination drive, she worries about the future: "I learned some German, some Dutch, a bit of French to work in this sector. It's the little things that make our visitors feel special, and why many keep coming back. When will I ever get to use these skills if I have to look for a job in an office because our government has destroyed tourism? I don't want to work in an office. I want to meet people from abroad."

Slow recovery across the board

Liesl Matthews moves the conversation beyond factors pertaining to the economy and jobs: "Safari lodges and the tourism industry in general look after a huge amount of human capital, but don't forget about conservation. International tourism supports conservation efforts by people going on safaris. Without these contributions, individual companies have to fundraise to make sure that once we are out of this 'COVID-tastrophe,' there will still be wildlife left to view."

Karien de Villiers adds the logistics of lockdown rules also play a role: "I went home when lockdown started for what we thought would be three weeks. I ended up being away from Phelwana lodge for four months, as I live in a different province than where I work, and we weren't allowed to cross province boundaries."

With talk of further restrictions expected to be announced later in January, for Matthews, the "unknown is the biggest enemy," she says.

"After all, you can't run a business on negative cash flow. Tourism can only start recovering when people start traveling again."

Cape Town without tourists

*Not her real name.

Sertan Sanderson Moderation
Sertan Sanderson DW journalist & human seeking to make sense of the world and understand what motivates other humansSertanSanderson