Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

Eleven years ago I opened a small specialised business, called Past Experiences, operating walking tours in the Joburg inner city. It was never easy to run. We operate in a city that has degenerated over the past 30 years and we regularly have to deal with crime and xenophobic violence. Nonetheless, I’m fortunate to work in a city I love, among communities that inspire me.

But my business, and the tourism industry, has hit the wall of Covid-19. Necessary travel bans have brought all trips to SA by foreign tourists to a halt. Until this point, 2020 had been a good year for my company, with bookings every day. Now, there are none for the foreseeable future.

It happened overnight. After President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the first steps to curb the spread of the virus, cancellations poured in.

A consultant at a high-end travel agency told me he had had 30 families scheduled to travel over the next month — now he has none.

To mitigate this, travel agencies have made a push to "postpone not cancel". For me, it means bookings pushed to the end of the year, or next year.

Jo Buitendach. Picture: Supplied
Jo Buitendach. Picture: Supplied

It’s a huge blow to SA. The World Travel & Tourism Council says tourism contributes 1.5-million jobs and R425.8bn to the economy, representing 8.6% of SA’s economic activity.

Now this has been punctured.

My colleagues in the industry — travel guides, agencies, hotels, airlines and tourist attractions — are all in a similar predicament.

In my case, I’m lucky that I don’t have full-time employees, or an office with overheads I must pay. Hopefully I can weather this storm for a few months, and supplement my income through other channels. Many others aren’t as lucky.

The industry’s collapse ricochets down the chain. I worry about the many small businesses that benefit from tourism by extension — retailers, restaurants, security and transport services. During my tours, I bring clients to coffee shops, informal traders, artists and inner-city shops, but this has stopped.

I think constantly of the small businesses that rely on me and my clients. But I worry most about the inner-city communities who live hand-to-mouth and won’t be able to panic-buy groceries, self-isolate, or approach this disease in the same way that many middle-class South Africans will.