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About R60bn spent by long-haul tourists to SA in 2019 could be at risk in future due to greenhouse gas-related market regulations and visitor sentiment shifts, according to SA Tourism's 2019 Tourism Performance report.

While SA’s tourism sector doesn’t now have unilateral climate-related trade measures such as those in the EU’s Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism, the climate crisis will lead to restructuring of tourism flows around the world. Much like the decarbonisation plans for other emission-intensive sectors such as steel, tourism requires a road map, one crafted to suit our needs

Regulators are starting to look seriously at aviation decarbonisation. For instance, the EU is investigating misleading green claims made by 20 airlines. At a country level, Singapore recently announced an additional passenger tax to pay for sustainable aviation fuels. Regulations aside, some climate-concerned visitor markets might simply choose less carbon-intensive destinations — that is, closer to home. So climate market resilience should be a strategic consideration underpinning SA’s approach to tourism market development and promotion. Here, the domestic market is critical for the sector’s resilience.

A clear opportunity relates to converting a share of outbound travel into domestic tourism. The outbound market (SA residents travelling abroad) was worth about R5bn in 2019, with an estimated 5-million outbound departures.

Regional tourist markets are also less emission-intensive than long-haul markets. In 2017-19, 7.3-million to 7.6-million tourists a year arrived in the Southern African Development Community (Sadc), while the total foreign direct expenditure share from these markets fell from 40% in 2017 to 32% overall in 2019. Despite this, there is some potential to grow certain higher-spending regional tourist segments.

Business and medical tourism

For example, 50% of Zambian and 40% of Malawian tourists in 2019 (and with a similar pattern in the two preceding years) visited SA for business shopping purposes, spending about R10,000 to R20,000 a trip. These tourists buy goods to resell in their countries. Another segment — medical tourists — are a small, albeit important, reason for travel to SA, particularly from Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ethiopia. And other business tourists attending meetings, conferences and exhibitions are also high spenders, with strong links to trade and investment.

In the medium to long term, non-Sadc African markets also hold some market potential. Strong middle-class growth and a continental focus on regional co-operation through the African Continental Free Trade Area and other regional integration initiatives support this, but SA will need to address barriers such as xenophobia, crime, visa and airlift obstacles. The introduction of an e-visa for Kenyans saw their tourist numbers in SA rise 40%, from about 30,000 in 2019 to 42,000 in 2023.

The industry must begin to introduce lower-carbon itineraries.

From a communication and positioning perspective, the industry should build a set of shared messages on how we remain a compelling sustainable tourism destination drawing on the role of tourism in our economy, society and as a major source of income for environmental protection. A national high-quality carbon scheme for inbound long-haul tourists could fund developmental initiatives in the country. As in the case of the recent Rhino bond, this could support programmes with environmental and jobs gains. SANParks is already investigating the carbon market as an income source and is an obvious partner here.

At the same time, the industry must begin to introduce lower-carbon itineraries. Opportunities exist for introducing electric tourist coach fleets, electric planes for short routes, improved rail offerings, and the immediate rollout of renewable energy in accommodation establishments, restaurants and attractions, building on the example set by several off-grid lodges around the country. Our fledgling cruise market will also need to get serious about low-carbon and lower-impact cruises.

Another way to try to safeguard the market is to support domestic e-fuel (paraffin) production for use in flights from SA through leveraging Sasol’s Fischer-Tropsch process and other technologies. Sasol is already involved in global sustainable aviation fuel partnerships, but it is not clear if SA is at the front of the queue to get our hands on supplies.

The tourism sector in SA has shown itself to be vulnerable to global and local events, from Covid-19 to Day Zero, taxi strikes and crime. The sector has also repeatedly demonstrated resilience and innovation. We need to draw on these strengths to get planning for a climate-challenged future.

• 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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