SA won’t see as many tourists this summer as before Covid – but those coming will be rich

  • South Africa’s embattled tourism sector is slowly recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • With summer approaching, the tourism and hospitality industries are looking forward to an influx of overseas visitors.
  • But the number of arrivals is unlikely to match those pre-pandemic, with expensive flights and safety concerns slowing the sector’s recovery.
  • Those tourists arriving will, however, be big spenders looking for luxury holidays.

South Africa’s tourism sector is unlikely to make a full recovery from the pandemic-induced lull this summer, but those holidaymakers arriving in the country will be big spenders looking for luxury.

South Africa’s embattled tourism sector is looking forward to a summer without restrictions. The previous two summer seasons were marred by flight suspensions, border closures, quarantines, and a general unwillingness to travel related to health concerns.

During this time, South Africa’s tourism sector shed close to a third of its direct and indirect jobs.

International travel has since rebounded, following the easing of most restrictions at the start of the year, but is still not at levels last seen in 2019. The recovery in developed regions has been far swifter, with European air traffic in August improving to more than 80% of 2019 levels, according to Eurocontrol. This resurgence of travel to and around Europe during the summer months resulted in chaos at understaffed and ill-prepared airports throughout the region.

Travel to and within the United States has been slower to recover, with overseas arrivals at 65% of pre-pandemic levels, although travel spending has returned to normal, according to the US Travel Association.

Overseas visitors to South Africa have been much slower to return. In the first six months of 2022, overseas arrivals were at 45% of levels seen prior to the pandemic. But half of this time is regarded as South Africa’s off-season, where international travel numbers dip during winter in favour of summers in the northern hemisphere.

All eyes of South Africa’s tourism and hospitality sectors are keenly focused on the upcoming summer season, which will offer a true measure of the rebound in overseas arrivals during the country’s busiest holidaymaking months.

And while South Africa can still expect to welcome an influx of tourists this summer, arrivals, in terms of volume, are unlikely to match pre-pandemic levels, according to travel industry experts.

“Or expectation currently is that arrival numbers will be somewhere between 50% and 60% of 2019 levels,” Martin Wiest, CEO of Tourvest Destination Management, told Business Insider SA.

Persistent challenges stifling a swift recovery in arrival numbers include constrained capacity among airlines, with airfares on some routes even doubling and even tripling compared to 2019, said Wiest. This is a consequence of mass layoffs during the pandemic, with airlines struggling to get new pilots into the air and mandatory simulator training being fully booked for the next 18 months.

Airline capacity is only likely to normalise in two years, according to Wiest, and, in the meantime, ticket prices, also influenced by volatile oil costs, are likely to remain high.

But the high cost of flying isn’t the only issue slowing South Africa’s recovery. The country has also suffered reputational damage over the past two years, with heightened concerns around safety and security dissuading would-be holidaymakers.

“The riots last year haven’t helped us [attract tourists]. Safety and security issues in South Africa have a material impact on our ability to create tourism in this country, and we have endless [safety] problems with our passengers at the moment,” said Wiest.

“Mpumalanga is a problem [and the] Garden Route is partially a problem. Port Elizabeth [Gqeberha] is very unsafe. Safety in this country, in the meantime, constricting tourism.”

Tourvest also has offices in Kenya and Namibia, and the comeback of tourism in those destinations has been quicker than what’s experienced in South Africa, said Wiest, who pointed to an “overall structural issue”, related to government inefficiencies, that continues to slow the country’s recovery.

Although South Africa won’t welcome back as many tourists this upcoming summer as it did before the pandemic, the good news for the sector, is that those arriving will be big spenders and are more likely to indulge in luxury experiences.

“I think we’ll have less volume [of arrivals] in the country, but what we can certainly see at the moment is that we have a better-quality tourism [with] longer stays [and a] better product,” said Wiest, who gave an example of 50% of tourists now looking for five-star treatment, whereas, before the pandemic, 20% of travellers were booking these luxury holidays.

The expected arrival of fewer – but richer – tourists this summer is supported by Robert More, CEO and founder of the MORE Family Collection, which operates several lodges and boutique hotels in Southern Africa.

“The luxury market is leading the recovery, and we anticipate that this trend will continue for the foreseeable future as the affordable market segment still recovers,” More told Business Insider.

“We believe the season will be back to pre-pandemic numbers very soon, however this may only occur in the luxury space with the affordable market only making a full recovery in the summer of 2023/2024. The energy crisis in Europe may influence this even further, but it is difficult to know if this will really have a positive impact on travellers for this coming summer.”