In recent years, South Africa has attracted more than 10 million foreign tourists each year and ecently set a target of raising this to 21 million by 2030.
But the dramatic onset of Covid-19 means it is highly unlikely that it will get back to where we were anytime soon, in terms of international tourist numbers or expenditure. It seems reasonable to assume that border closures will remain for some time. Given that different countries will experience the pandemic at different speeds and intensities, it is also unlikely to see unilaterally relaxed travel regimes. It’s possible a lack of airlift capacity from tourist markets might compound this and further restrict potential travel to its shores.
What about tourist demand?
Fear and anxiety feel pervasive right now. While shocks and vulnerabilities are sadly not new for marginalised people the world over, they are being experienced by the global middle class, who have until now been relatively unaffected. This group is likely to be more cautious about travel once the pandemic is better controlled.
After Covid-19, many would-be leisure tourists may also have less ability to travel, at least in the short term, as a result of less disposable income and little paid leave (particularly in instances where companies have forced employees to take their annual leave during lockdown periods). Those who have employment may simply want to get back to a more predictable office and work environment.
Corporate travel will also not bounce back quickly. Even for those businesses that survive, re-opening to struggling economies, and having become accustomed to communicating digitally, means that travel patterns are unlikely to return to pre-Covid-19 levels for some time, if at all.
Given all of this, where are our visitor markets likely to come from and what sort of experiences might they be looking for?
Recreation for residents
The local resident base will be what brings our restaurants, attractions and leisure experiences back to life, long before domestic or foreign visitors return in volume. As South Africans, our first steps will be into local spaces: back onto the streets where we live, to parks, beaches and other open-air public spaces that are safe, and known to us.
To date, there’s been somewhat of an artificial divide between planning for recreation and planning for tourism. The crisis provides an opportunity to think very differently about local residents as our primary visitor markets. This means pushing for the development of dynamic, safe, inclusive and accessible public spaces for recreation, particularly in underserved communities.
For instance, as part of the recovery plan for tourism, why not launch an ambitious multi-sectoral programme centred on urban rivers as sites for recreation (and, in future, tourism)? This could involve the clearing, cleaning, opening up and community-led development of rivers in our cities, starting with nodes in poorer areas.
Well-established tourist attractions will also need to re-orient themselves to local residents. Creative strategies will be needed to build local participation and support, addressing issues such as relevance, pricing and transport.
Domestic travel to friends and relatives
For those South Africans who have the means and available time, reconnecting with friends and relatives will be high on the priority list. Short holiday trips may also be popular, either as self-drive trips or as packages to known destinations for rest and relaxation.
Attracting foreign ‘repeaters’ back again
South Africa has a high rate of repeat travel: In 2018, 82% of all foreign tourists were repeat tourists. Our high repeater rate bodes well for a recovery of some tourist volume. It also means that we will need to use engagement and marketing strategies that work through South Africans to reach their networks, as well as employ customer relationship management strategies to market directly to potential repeat tourists.
Easing travel for cross-border traders
Within the repeater market, it’s important to not overlook travel from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region. SADC travellers are the bulk of our tourists – close to 7.3 million of the total of 10.3 million tourists in 2018.