Travel and tourism in SA must prepare for more than just an inconvenient shake-up. The fundamentals of the entire sector are shifting and a united front is vital for the country to strategise an intelligent response for the future.

In the past few weeks we’ve seen protests in Cape Town and Johannesburg, calling for the immediate reopening of a sector hit by income plunging 98% since May 2020, according to the Tourism Business Council of SA. this has put about 600,000 direct tourism jobs at risk.

We’ve heard predictions that the sector will start recording strong numbers again only in early 2022. Cape Town Tourism says that 56% of businesses polled do not have recovery plans in place, and many believe they simply will not survive any further extension of lockdown.

Meanwhile, the V & Waterfront in Cape Town has become the first tourism attraction in the world to be awarded a global safety and hygiene stamp, with Stellenbosch following hard on its heels. Brainchild of the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), this is an attempt to certify that all safety and hygiene protocols are in place to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

Such moves are an understandable attempt to reassure tourists that safety protocols are in place in the hope that the financially lucrative international tourism sector can be kick-started quickly to return to “normal”. After all, the WTTC estimates that up to 50-million jobs in the sector could be lost as a result of Covid-19 and the industry, accounting for about 10% of global GDP, could take almost a full year to recover after the pandemic ends.

Unfortunately, most of these efforts are being directed towards a return to a status quo we left behind in early 2020. But as my colleague at the Gordon Institute of Business Science, Prof Adrian Saville, said during a recent LinkedIn discussion, a return to the “old normal” looks increasingly unlikely.

What we are facing now, as countries and a global community, is the unknown. This means the tourism & travel sector should not be focusing on how to return to the past, but on how to rewire itself completely. There are three potential directions the travel & tourism sector could take over the next few years.

First, hit by the collapse of airlines around the world the cost of travel could be driven up so sharply that global tourism numbers fall and take years to recover. The second scenario envisages a mixture of limited numbers of high-end travellers from abroad, and local and regional tourism. In the third, and in my opinion the least likely, international travellers frustrated by long lockdowns flood to new destinations and the global industry bounces back.

While tourism will undoubtedly recover quickly in pockets, the global industry will have to get smarter about how it attracts people, finds new markets and enhances the services it offers tourists. The issue of convenience was neatly underlined recently when the UK did a rapid about-turn on its Spanish “travel corridor” decision and declared that travellers returning from Spain must self-quarantine for 14 days.

As infection numbers spike and subside over the course of the next few months (possibly even years, depending on the availability of an effective and long-term vaccine), this sort of inconvenience will drive more travellers to opt for domestic breaks.

This “cognitive rewiring” will be supported by the challenges facing the aviation industry to ensure hygiene standards are up to the task of transporting people safely. Air travel will for some time be an arduous process requiring widespread screening. We will see longer lead times, the need for lengthy waits while planes are decontaminated after each flight, and the checking and double-checking of passengers.

There is every possibility that in addition to visas you will need medical certificates and be subjected to lengthy quarantine, either before or after travelling. Tickets will inevitably be more expensive due to supply and demand factors.

For those who were used to frequent business travel and enjoyed family holidays jet-setting around the globe, it will be a big adjustment. But the past few months have opened our eyes to the potential for virtual engagement, of work-from-home realities and the heavy environmental toll human travel has on the planet. These realisations — together with the all-important cost factor — will have a serious effect on the business travel market in particular. Instead of flying to London for a quick two-day conference and having to deal with medical vetting, probable quarantine and an arduous travel process, many of us will now choose the more economical and safer virtual experience.

When we do travel for business or leisure it is likely — at least initially — to be closer to home, where we can drive rather than fly. Our metal cocoons will give us greater control over social distancing and personal security, the cost will be less than via air, and hitting the road will cut out annoyances such as lengthy queues and the general frustration of the airport experience. 

The question we should be asking now is how best to pivot as a sector and country to meet the travel needs of the future tourist. Consider the long-haul nature of our tourism sector. Will travellers to SA from Europe, the US or Asia be prepared to put up with the inconvenience associated with air travel for a two-week vacation? They are more likely to opt for a destination closer to home or will want to stay in SA longer, potentially working from their temporary home and therefore needing more affordable longer-term accommodation and requiring access to fast and reliable internet.

This could present opportunities not only for those with Airbnb properties but also for those businesses offering services such as laundry and grocery delivery or curated experiences. However, for the foreseeable future SA tourism will be dominated by local and regional travellers. And that means taking a long, hard look at pricing models — local and international travellers will be seeking value for money. In SA’s case we also need to consider how to attract more tourists from other African countries.

The shifts that will unfold in this key sector of the economy will be hard to bear in the short term. Travel will become much more expensive, but that could amplify the value and attractiveness of travel moments and encounters. Tourists will be prepared to dig deep into their pockets if the offering is worth it, which means unless SA can collectively rethink its travel offering we risk losing out on those deep pockets.

We must tread carefully and think strategically at this critical juncture as we reimagine the future.

• Verachia is CEO of The Strategists and on the faculty of the Gordon Institute of Business Science.


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