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South Africa’s tourism industry is on indefinite hold – even though some hotels are hosting clandestine stays

CAPE TOWN July 28 (Te Southern Africa Times) – Back in March, South Africa responded to the Covid-19 pandemic with one of the world’s strictest lockdowns. Four months on, some rules have been relaxed, but coronavirus infections are spiking across the country. And so international borders are still closed, potentially until 2021. With provincial borders also closed for leisure travel, the tourism industry is on indefinite hold.

This is no small matter. The industry indirectly contributed 7 per cent of GDP in 2019 and 9.1 per cent of total employment. Minister of Tourism, Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, spoke of a potential 75 per cent reduction in tourism revenue for 2020. 

In June, there was a flicker of hope as intra-provincial leisure tourism was permitted. Businesses excitedly geared up for their first guests – only for the government to announce there had been a mistake in their comms, and accommodation for leisure was in fact still prohibited.

After the u-turn, many accommodations simply decided to make their own rules. The owner of a three-chalet self-catering lodge on the popular Garden Route – who wishes to remain anonymous – told me many of her booked-in guests came anyway. Having been closed for four months, she’d received no government support, but had managed to keep paying her two employees. Many other properties, with no alternative way of making ends meet, are also catering for leisure guests.

With the fresh focus on domestic tourism, a spotlight has been turned on the stark reality that many hotels and lodges are entirely out of reach for the majority of South Africans. This is especially true of safari lodges, most of which rely on foreign guests who can afford between £300 and £1,000 per person per night. Even discounted local rates are too pricey for the majority of South Africans.

The absence of visitors has also affected many restaurants and wineries, which have been hurt by other measures, too – especially July’s new alcohol ban and curfew.

The first alcohol ban was enforced in March. After partially lifting it in June, the government reinstated it a mere six weeks later, as the country hit the peak of coronavirus infections, based on the amount of ICU beds used for alcohol-related incidents.

Wineries that export their products to countries such as the UK are encouraging people to buy South African wine whenever they can.

Restaurants have tried to adapt. Some have created ‘finish at home’ meal kits. Chefs have been using their time and kitchens to bulk-cook meals for the many people out of work. Sit-down openings were recently permitted, but with social distancing, not being able to serve alcohol (a major profit source) and a 9pm curfew – making it very difficult to do a dinner service, clean up and get staff home in time – many have found it financially unviable.

Last week, hospitality workers took to the streets to protest, holding signs showing how many people are employed at their place of work and how many jobs would be (or have been) lost without government support; empty chairs and tables were symbolically laid out, including a 1,000-seat table in the Cape Winelands. But on Friday (24th July), heavy-handed police shut down peaceful protests in Cape Town with water cannons and stun grenades.

The tourism lockdown in South Africa also has a broader impact on the whole region. Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport is the main hub for Southern Africa.

“Safari itineraries are often a combination of countries…the ability to ‘hub and spoke’ out of the key centres is often the backbone of these trips,” explains Roberto Viviani, business manager for Wilderness Safaris, which has camps and lodges in Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia. Alternative options through other airports, Viviani says, are “being investigated on an ongoing basis.” Meanwhile, state-owned carrier South African Airways continues to teeter on the brink of collapse, which will further reduce available routes in the immediate future.

Unless money starts trickling in now, many businesses won’t survive the year. Local tourism will help, but until international travel resumes – and people start booking trips and paying deposits – the industry faces some extremely challenging times.

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