Readying the travel and tourism sector to come back strong


The devastation inflicted on SA’s travel and tourism (T&T) industry by the global COVID-induced lockdowns is beginning to abate, as people regain their confidence in travel. It helps that SA’s removal from ‘red’ lists appears permanent this time. But rather than simply waiting for international travel to gather momentum, our T&T industry has a unique opportunity to capitalise on emerging trends and boost growth.

There is certainly a pent-up demand for travel. Until the coronavirus put a deadly halt to it, the T&T industry was in its ninth straight year of growth – usually at a faster rate than the global economy, thanks to stronger economic growth, more affordable air travel, technological changes, new business models and greater visa facilitation around the world. Despite its often unfriendly visa regime, SA was a beneficiary of this trend, with tourism’s contribution to the economy increasing 46.4% from R134.3 billion in 2018 to R196.7 billion in 2019. At the same time, employment in the sector increased by 26.4%, with 773 533 people directly employed in 2019. While data for 2020 and beyond is not yet available, this is obviously no longer the case, which makes rebuilding the sector a vital national priority. Of course, after almost two years of uncertainty, we cannot be perfectly clear on what the future of travel looks like. But we can and must be proactive when it comes to marketing SA as a safe and desirable destination in the not-quite-post-COVID world.

Tourism service providers should identify those markets likely to recover first. In addition, we need to fight for the return of precious visitors who have not resumed their travel to SA. Even without restrictions it would be prudent if local hotels and guesthouses maintained specific health and cleaning protocols, and certain COVID safety measures. Travellers will also remain anxious about making bookings given the uncertainty over travel. Thus the SA industry should strive for as much flexibility as possible – free cancellation, flexible pre-sale bookings and insurance coverage are important places to start.

Our industry should focus on a new branding strategy, as the old one was undoubtedly marred by the pandemic and the many derogatory news reports about ‘South African variants’. Innovative products and packages with a diverse range of unthought-of collaborators can be devised and launched. Organisations can use this opportunity to restructure and open new avenues for products and services. Travellers dreaming about long-distance travel and holidays are likely to focus on outdoor plans and socially distanced destinations. SA, unlike most of Europe with its crowded cities, is well placed to take advantage of this.

Business travel should slowly return in 2022, but there is still a long way to go to reach a full recovery – and it’s unlikely we’ll see it ‘the way it was’ – as remote working and virtual meetings become more entrenched.

However, ‘work from home’ has transformed into ‘work from anywhere’. All you need these days is a laptop and a good internet connection, something most SA establishments – whether accommodation or restaurants – cater for. This is a trend that can definitely be exploited by long-distance destinations, such as SA. On the technology side, we’ve seen banks and others adopt ‘contactless’ touch points – this will remain important, and travel companies will need to find ways to give more guidance and personalised support to their customers in their journey through digital and innovative experiences. Visible efforts to improve sustainability are also going to be important to visitors, particularly those on long-haul flights. Some in the industry understand this. For instance, all water pumps at Addo Elephant Park are solar powered. The park has also come to a mutually beneficial arrangement with British Airways, which helps fund the conservation of spekboom, a succulent indigenous to the Eastern Cape and known for its CO2-absorption and climate resilience. That’s the creative thinking we need. SA’s T&T industry has been devastated by the pandemic, but there’s no reason why it shouldn’t come back stronger than ever. It just takes some innovation, industry co-ordination and clever marketing.

By Sasha Planting