A party of tourists with and a guide sit in an open-roofed vehicle, getting a close look at two white rhino in the foreground at the Phinda Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal. Picture: GALLO IMAGES
A party of tourists with and a guide sit in an open-roofed vehicle, getting a close look at two white rhino in the foreground at the Phinda Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal. Picture: GALLO IMAGES

On October 1, SA’s borders will open. What sort of post-lockdown volumes and values from international tourists can we expect in the short term? As just announced, tourists from countries with high levels of active infections might not be allowed to travel here. Outside the restrictions we place on potential tourists, there are also market segments that might choose not to travel for some time and others that might rebound.

The three segments most likely to decline are those aged 65 and over; meetings, incentives, conference and exhibition (Mice) tourists as large business events are cancelled or postponed; and some “regular” international business travellers (virtual engagements have partly replaced the need for business travel). In 2019, the total number of international tourists from these three segments visiting SA amounted to about 940,000, generating about R20bn in economic value.

About 240,000 tourist arrivals to SA in 2019 were aged 65 and over. Most of these tourists came from Europe (just over 130,000) and the US (57,000). Restaurants, retail, experiences, paid accommodation and attractions will likely be the most affected by a big drop in demand. Some of the drop might be offset by the return to SA of “swallows” — tourists who follow the summer sun, some of whom also have homes here.

SA received about 400,000 Mice tourist arrivals in 2019. This purpose of travel is particularly significant for a number of newer, high-growth markets to SA where we are trying to establish a foothold. These include India and non-neighbouring African countries.

Other business tourist arrivals to SA numbered about 300,000 in 2019. Together with Mice travellers, business travel can lead to trade and investment and also result in future leisure trips. Recognising this, SA has worked hard to establish itself as a leading Mice destination, and firms and the government have developed significant infrastructure to support Mice tourism. Conference and event venues, hotels, meeting and event planners, caterers and restaurants will all feel the effect of a market decline. The spatial effect is likely to be most pronounced in Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini.

Despite the pandemic and its likely duration, certain potential rebound and growth market segments exist. One major rebound segment is shopping tourism. This includes tourists shopping for personal items and those shopping for business, and is a major motivator of travel from our neighbouring countries. International shopping tourist arrivals in SA ranged between 1.7-million and 2.5-million tourist arrivals each year between 2017 and 2019.

Their economic effect is large: research undertaken for the Johannesburg Inner City Partnership estimated that cross-border shoppers spent R10bn in Johannesburg alone in 2017. Shopping tourists are not only important for Gauteng, but Limpopo, the Free State, and Mpumalanga too, where they comprise a major share of total tourist arrivals and help support the retail sector. As this travel is relatively nondiscretionary, it is likely to return quite fast.

The desire to visit friends and relatives will be a major motivator of travel for many people who have not been able to see loved ones during lockdown. These travellers have already shown themselves to be a resilient segment in the face of ongoing safety and security events (including xenophobia) and the drought in Cape Town. In total, such tourist arrivals number about four-million of our total 10-million international tourist arrivals each year.

The marketing tactics here could also be quite different to the approach taken for first-time holiday or business travellers as many would-be friends and family tourists rely heavily on their contacts in the destination for advice on what to see and do (and now, likely risk assurance, too). From a tactical perspective the question is how can we best leverage our population to be tourism ambassadors? All our domestic tourism marketing and ongoing Covid-19 communication has the potential to be amplified by South Africans to reach potential foreign tourists.

In addition to shopping and tourists visiting friends and family, certain pockets of holiday tourists also exhibit market potential during the pandemic. The World Travel and Tourism Council’s recovery dashboard indicates that adventure (including nature-based travel) is the most popular category of trip search. SA is well-positioned here. The country can also attract holiday tourists from other African countries, particularly where they might face restrictions on travel elsewhere.

A further attractive segment is digital nomads. These are often young travellers, working remotely, looking for destinations where their euros or dollars can go far and where they can live like locals for some months. This market could help buoy small, local businesses in and around major urban centres and even further afield.

In SA, as we now move into a long, hot summer, many potential tourists are facing cold northern hemisphere winters and increasing rates of Covid-19 infection in their own countries. We must capture tourists’ imaginations with creative packaging targeting pandemic growth segments.

While “red-listing” of inbound tourist markets by country infection rates seems to be a widely adopted approach, it is important that SA carefully tracks the effect and remains adaptable. Implementation might prove administratively complicated for border management and could also challenge forward planning by tourists, tour operators and airlines.

As with everything else related to Covid-19, we must be vigilant in relation to unintended consequences. With so much on offer for tourists, SA has what it takes to inspire again. Let’s get to it.

• Rivett-Carnac, a former special adviser to the tourism minister and SA Tourism board member, is an independent tourism researcher and adviser.

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