BURNT: Susan Campbell surveys her property in Paradise, Knysna, which was destroyed by the recent fire Picture: ESA ALEXANDER
BURNT: Susan Campbell surveys her property in Paradise, Knysna, which was destroyed by the recent fire Picture: ESA ALEXANDER

EVERY year thousands of local tourists flock to the Cape coast over summer to soak up the sun on its many spectacular beaches.

But with the destructive fires that have recently torn through the popular Garden Route, an ongoing drought plaguing parts of the Western Cape and a recession in the country, tougher times may lie ahead for the tourism sector.

The Garden Route's jewel, Knysna, which was hit hard by the fires, will push on in hosting its annual Oyster Festival next month, despite the destruction.

Elmay Bouwer, chairwoman of the Knysna Tourism board, said the town was more than 500 beds short for the festival.

Local tourism authorities are assisting affected businesses by placing guests in neighbouring towns over the festival period to minimise cancellations.

So far at least 2 500 jobs had been lost in the town, mostly in residential homes, guesthouses and hotels, Bouwer said.

"Tourism is our main economic driver in this town. It is extremely important for our economy to get back on its feet that the festival takes place and that people still book.


"By entering anything in the festival, the marathon or the cycle race, you are actually helping a local to get their job back," Bouwer said.

Damaged establishments will not be repaired in time for the festival but some are expected to be operational again in time for the summer holiday period.

The Oyster Festival is the biggest event on the town's tourism calendar and gives local businesses, which make up most of the town's economy, a much-needed boost in the quieter winter months.

The festival's organisers estimate that it injects R150-million into Knysna's economy over 10 days.

"A lot of businesses use the Oyster Festival to launch because of that boost of cash. If you want to be ready for December, launch your business in July and get in that cash to get you off the ground," said Chris Botes, also a member of the local tourism board and owner of Knysna Adventures.

Most of the town's central business district, luxury golf courses and the popular Knysna Waterfront were unaffected by the blaze.

Cruises on the Knysna lagoon are still operational, but Featherbed Nature Reserve is closed.

Knysna is not the only part of the Western Cape that has been affected by disaster. Cape Town and surrounding areas have been gripped in a drought, and the city has been declared a disaster zone.

Cape Town Tourism CEO Enver Duminy could not say how the drought had cost the tourism economy in the city, but acknowledged that a slowing economy was likely to affect the destination preferences of local tourists.

"Domestically, there is a chance locals may be forced to tighten their belts, but this in turn may result in them choosing to travel domestically rather than internationally."

Duminy said data from Airports Company South Africa showed tourists continued to flock to Cape Town last year.

Last year 10million passengers passed through Cape Town International Airport.

International arrivals at the airport soared, with a 36% increase recorded in April year on year, while total arrivals increased rose 13% in April year on year.

Duminy said leisure day trips were most common in the Western Cape, with other provinces scoring highly in the category due to business, shopping and funerals.

No major events have been cancelled because of the drought, but certain hotels in the city have been affected.

The Radisson Blu at the V&A Waterfront recently closed its signature swimming pool.

The V&A Waterfront has started using sea water instead of potable water in its cooling systems.

Hannelie du Toit, chief operating officer at the Southern Africa Tourism Services Association, said people's perceptions, rather than the drought, could cause damage to the Western Cape's tourism industry.

"The Ebola crisis had a huge effect on us though it wasn't even close to South Africa. People hear that and get scared and cancel their bookings.

"[Some will] assume that the whole Garden Route area is destroyed whereas towns like Oudtshoorn and Mossel Bay are accommodating guests.

"[Among] the things that affect small tourism businesses is political instability.

"If you think of international perceptions and if [tourists see] marches, toyi-toying and burning - that makes people uncomfortable to come to South Africa."

She added bureaucracy also sometimes held tourism businesses back from flourishing.

Johan Fourie, associate professor in the economics department at Stellenbosch University, said he expected changes in tourism to be in the domestic market, although an appreciating rand could also push international tourists towards other destinations.

"Given that South Africa's economy is not booming, you probably won't see a large increase in the number of business tourists coming here for various things from business activities to trade shows or investor meetings.

"Leisure tourists react differently, so for them the exchange rate might be more important," he said.

He added that local tourists were likely to reconsider holiday spending due to the recession.

"You would see more preference for shorter, lower-cost holidays, and you would expect to see visits clos er to your place of origin, instead of travelling the entire country.

"A place like Knysna, for example, which is quite far from most main centres and is known for its luxury holidays [will likely lose out]."

Economist Azar Jammine said that for all the losses in the Garden Route's tourism sector due to the fires, construction in the area was likely to see a boom.

The Western Cape cabinet has redirected R75-million towards rebuilding Knysna, while South Africa's four major banks and other corporates have also made donations.

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