SA’s tourism sector is in the doldrums – what are the chances of it recovering?

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Dr Mabuyi Gumede
Dr Mabuyi Gumede

Tourism in South Africa only gained real momentum and growth after the first democratic elections in 1994. Before that the sector suffered from “missed opportunities” because of the country’s apartheid regime which excluded Black people from actively participating in mainstream tourism, resulting in the country losing out on various economic opportunities and activities such as trading with first world countries (National Tourism Sector Strategy, 2012).

The onset of democracy prioritised establishing equal opportunities for all, which created platforms for Black people to get into the industry operating as emerging Small, Medium and Micro enterprises (SMMEs).

Then in 2020, the previously unheard-of Coronavirus ravaged the world, taking the wind out of the sails of the tourism industry, leaving it in the doldrums. Today, more than a year later, the future of the sector is uncertain. The onset of COVID-19 forced the closure of our borders to international tourists, bringing hope for domestic tourism to flourish, however, optimism was dashed when it became evident the sector could not prosper significantly without support from international travellers and their forex. The impact on both the domestic and international travel was near crushing.

With many tourism businesses and bodies forced to close, resulting in job losses and increasing unemployment rates (28,48% in 2020), it became necessary for the South African government to offer support to ensure the survival of the industry. A medium to long-term support measure the government needs to devise in that area are policy adjustments for the future wellbeing of the industry – but with so many tourist enterprises closing, it is evident South Africa does not seem to have this kind of a plan in place, which is of great concern. The authorities should also prioritise strengthening the co-operation between countries to restore traveller confidence.

All indications are that COVID-19 and its new strains are going to be with us for some time yet so it is necessary for the state and private sector to urgently agree on a plan to enable the tourism industry to survive while the fight against the virus continues. Strategies to build a stronger, more sustainable and resilient tourism economy need to be established.

The United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO, 2020) forsees a decline in international arrivals of close to 70% with pre-crisis levels not expected to return before 2023. In August 2020, the South African government released a draft tourism recovery plan for public consideration and it suggested strategic interventions such as stimulating domestic demand, launching investment and resource mobilisation programmes and regional tourism integration, all aligned to the country’s Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan (ERRP). After vigorous consultation, the Cabinet approved the Tourism Sector Recovery Plan this year with the aim of helping job retention, improving livelihoods and creating new opportunities. This plan is aimed at strengthening transformational interventions in the sector as well as enhancing the empowerment of the emerging SMMEs and supporting the youth, women and people living with disabilities.

While the government has approved the ERRP, its implementation can only be a success if the private sector puts support strategies in place on the ground, including anti-COVID measures such as deep cleaning and sanitizing premises as part of the cleaning protocols to restore the confidence of tourists. Added to that, new health safety measures should be adopted including the reduction of occupancy rates and ensuring that guest activities are limited to open air events and activities. It is acknowledged that suggested measures may impact negatively on business sustainability and lead to price hikes.

Other measures suggested are minimising personal interaction, adopting a shift to technologies, and limiting gatherings to a certain number – however, these could result in job losses.

South Africa’s tourism industry can still recover if the government launches an integrated and coordinated plan to minimise job losses and improve the lives of the emerging businesses as well as strengthening visitor confidence through stringent anti-COVID precautionary measures.

Dr Mabuyi Gumede is attached to the College of Humanities at the University of KwaZulu-Natal