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Locals saved Cape Town's December tourism season – and may be rewarded with lower prices in future

Business Insider SA
Cape Town tourism
(Photo by Gallo Images/Die Burger/Jaco Marais)
  • Omicron-induced travel bans threatened to cripple Cape Town's tourism sector over the critical December holidays.
  • And although most international travellers kept their distance, domestic holidaymakers flooded the city's beaches, restaurants, hotels, and attractions.
  • But those who wanted to travel, but didn't, said they just couldn’t afford it.
  • This has brought the debate around dual pricing, whereby South Africans pay less than foreign tourists, back into focus.
  • Cape Town Tourism and local government are looking to engage the industry on dual pricing and review the code of responsible pricing, which was last updated in 2010.
  • For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

Cape Town's tourism sector, battered by the return of international travel bans in December, was rescued by domestic visitors. Now the discussion around making travel more affordable for South Africans has returned to the fore.

South Africa's embattled tourism and hospitality sectors had hoped for a bumper summer season. The outlook was positive in the third quarter of 2021, when Covid-induced travel bans had eased and bookings had flooded in from major international source markets like the United Kingdom, Germany, and the United States.

But this optimism was crushed in late November, with the discovery of the Omicron variant and a swift return of travel bans imposed by these same key tourist-bringing countries, and many more.

It's estimated that within 48 hours of Omicron's discovery, South Africa's tourism and hospitality sectors lost around R1 billion in cancelled bookings. By mid-December, the number of countries with heightened travel restrictions on South Africa had risen to around 90.

Cape Town, the country's tourism hub, was hardest hit by international cancellations. Fortunately for the city's tourism industry, which, prior to the pandemic, directly employed close to 50,000 people and brought around R15 billion into the economy, South African holidaymakers flocked to the coast, offsetting at least some losses incurred by the travel bans.

Cape Town Tourism, responsible for tourism marketing and visitor and industry services, represents more than 1,000 businesses in and around the city. More than half of its members reported that business was better in 2021 compared to the year prior, ostensibly, due to no heightened lockdown restrictions.

The same report, released on Wednesday, revealed a 64% increase in domestic visitors. Around R800 million was injected into the city in December, with the majority contributed by locals, according to the Mayoral Committee Member for Economic Opportunities at the City of Cape Town, James Vos.

But almost a third of respondents surveyed who initially said that they intended to travel in December, didn't. Of these respondents, almost 70% said they'd changed their minds because of financial constraints.

"Domestic travellers are our pillar of strength, but they have had an exceptionally difficult few years where places and experiences have become very costly," said Vos.

"While we cannot compromise on the quality of products on offer, we must also work to accommodate South Africans."

Most locals can't, and aren't prepared to, compete with the spend of international tourists. The recent Robben Island debacle, whereby South Africans are charged R1,000 for a walking tour, has renewed the debate around fair dual-pricing.

Some Cape Town attractions, like Kirstenbosch Gardens and the Table Mountain Cableway, already have dual prices, whereby South African citizens pay a cheaper rate than international visitors. South African National Parks Week also offers free entry to South Africans, with foreigners needing to pay.

But these initiatives aren't enough, according to the latest tourism findings, and South African travellers are looking for discounted rates – where they're not paying prices targetted at international arrivals – at hotels, bars, events, and other tourism attractions.

"There are pros and cons to dual pricing," Cape Town Tourism CEO, Enver Duminy, told Business Insider South Africa, who added that the average international tourist spends nine times more during their time in Cape Town compared to local visitors.

"I think it's critically important for public assets to be affordable and accessible to every South African citizen. It's also about making sure that the experience is done in a world class fashion. The question is, who's going to pay for it, who's going to subsidise it? We say we want things to be cheaper [or] we want things to be free, but who's going to fund that?"

Duminy confirmed that the discussion around dual pricing would form part of the review of the code of responsible pricing, which was last updated more than a decade ago.  

These discussions are also gaining momentum at a local government level.

"Attractions should be much more affordable [and] when I was in parliament I spoke [up] heavily for dual pricing," Alderman Vos told Business Insider SA.

"Businesses are bleeding [and] they're trying their best to make up for financial losses… but we must not outprice ourselves. We need to have a real, honest conversation with the industry around that win-win. From government's side [for government-run attractions] we need to do much more."

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