The Centenary Tree Canopy Walkway at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens. Picture: SUPPLIED/SANCB
The Centenary Tree Canopy Walkway at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens. Picture: SUPPLIED/SANCB

Covid-19 and the measures the SA government has put in place to curb its spread have had an acute effect on visitor attractions. Many sites reported a 90% drop in admissions in the week prior to the lockdown announcement and some will not be able to re-open their doors after the 21 days stipulated.

Visitor attractions exists to bring people together. They provide safe spaces and places for people to connect, with themselves, their families, friends and strangers.

The very core of being an attraction is now in question. It is clear that with high fixed costs, visitor attractions are severely and immediately impacted by any slowdown in admissions ticketing.

What is less clear is what the long-term effect will be on the industry. Will people rediscover in-home entertainment and neighbourhood adventure and stop heading out to visitor attractions, such as malls, museums and coffee shops, even after the threat of infection has passed? And what can visitor attractions do to safeguard against this?

Out-of-home attractions have already come under strain as consumers turn to in-home entertainment options such as Netflix and online shopping — Covid-19 measures are likely to accelerate this trend. But it is not clear yet how strong the drive to leave home to be entertained will be in a post Covid-19 world.

Almost all attractions are reliant on two peak periods annually: the summer school holidays and the Easter long weekend. These 30 days are crucial ticketing days that support the sites, their work and staff salaries. The remainder of the income is derived from the peak summer period from October to after Easter.

Sites with wide open spaces (gardens and national parks) are likely to recover quicker than sites with confined spaces or those heavily reliant on events and conferences

Most sites aim to break-even during the winter period, managing their costs carefully so that they get through this traditionally quieter period and are ready for the summer season.

Attractions have thus lost a critical and crucial income-producing period and will need to consider their responses in three phases. The initial shutdown phase; the early recovery phase; and the late, long-term recovery phase. While the government has mandated a 21 day shutdown, business-as-usual will not be the order of the day on day 22!

It is highly unlikely that attractions will be able to open the their doors to normal visitor flows and it’s likely to be many months before visitation will be back to pre-shutdown levels. Nevertheless, preparing for the day when restrictions are lifted is critical.

Each attraction is different and requires its own considered response to the crisis in each of these three phases. The decision should reflect the nature of their site. Does it require visitors and staff to be in close proximity to each other or can the site be used as a place of healing and rest? Gardens and national parks may choose to respond differently to sites where visitors are obliged to be closer to each other.

Dealing with the here and now of the shutdown

Attractions need to take the lead from the president. Safeguarding the health of their staff, some of whom will need to remain on site, is of primary concern. Each attraction will need to understand for themselves how best to do this.

They will also need to get creative about how to keep engaging with visitors. Even when closed, attractions can still reach out via social media showcasing a mindful message or image every day. The National Gallery of Art in Washington is temporarily closed to all visitors, but it is showcasing its work through video tours of current exhibitions and a daily, one-minute, in-depth look at the highlights of its collections.

Meanwhile, budgets and plans for the future need to be reworked and reconsidered allowing for a cautious view of how quickly tourism will bounce back. Sites with a high international to domestic tourism ratio are likely to take longer to recover. Sites with wide open spaces (gardens and national parks) are likely to recover quicker than sites with confined spaces or those heavily reliant on events and conferences.

Attractions can also take the time to consider and plan now for opening and winter specials. Consumers will have been at home or confined to their neighbourhoods and will be looking for healthy and safe activities to engage in.

Getting ready for re-opening

Attractions will be guided by the government as to when to re-open, and when this happens it is likely that visitors will start to trickle back. Attractions will need to be ready to ramp up communications during this early recovery phase to help draw people back.

It is crucial that attractions are ready for re-opening and that they have systems and practices in place that reassure staff and visitors that they will be safe. One of the main drawcards of attractions are that they are social spaces to meet and have fun.

Attractions opening again in the East are opening at reduced capacity, allowing only 50% of normal capacity in outside spaces and 30% of normal capacity in inside spaces

It will thus be important for attractions to show they are taking the safety aspect, now from a new viral angle, very seriously. People will want to see safe practices such as social-distancing and disinfecting.

Managers should assess what internal work can be done during the early recovery period — work that is traditionally done during the quieter winter months can be brought forward, and where possible, completed now.

For most attractions, 80% of income is derived from 20% of the attractions’ activity. Managers need to focus on ensuring that the major income driver is able to function safely. Health and safety measures as detailed by the SA government and World Health Organisation (WHO) need to be in place and a risk assessment completed as to where the onsite visitor bottlenecks are with a view to eliminating these to aid social-distancing.

A simple example might be to encourage people to use stairs rather than lifts and ensuring queuing allows a 1m distance between visitors. Attractions opening again in the East are opening at reduced capacity, allowing only 50% of normal capacity in outside spaces and 30% of normal capacity in inside spaces.

Visitor attractions may also consider re-opening the site in phases too, perhaps keeping on-site restaurants and/or shops closed but allowing people to visit while always maintaining a healthy social distance. This will allow the site to work with fewer staff thus allowing those that are at risk to stay at home.

In the longer term, how attractions signal and enact health and safety measures during the early recovery phase will be crucial to the recovery of visitor attractions. And, of course, how global tourism bounces back will also play a key role. Domestic and international visitors will be prioritising safe spaces to enjoy and SA must ensure that it is top of mind by finding ways to engage with consumers, even while not fully operational.

With its many natural attractions and wide open spaces, the country is well placed to provide healthy experiences for the body and mind. We need to prepare for the future by acting decisively and wisely now.

• Lehmann is the founder and CEO of Curiositas and founder and chair of the African Association of Visitor Experiences and Attractions.

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