Covid cut jobs in SA's tourism sector by a third – and a full recovery will take years

Business Insider SA
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)
  • South Africa's tourism industry bled close to 500,000 jobs during the first year of the pandemic, with little reprieve in 2021, thanks to targeted travel bans.
  • Travel to South Africa dropped by almost 80%, with vital foreign spend being even worse off.
  • And it's not only the pandemic that the tourism sector needs to recover from.
  • The July unrest and recent flooding in KwaZulu-Natal have resulted in a "negative brand image", according to parliament's portfolio committee on tourism.
  • Experts don't expect international travel to return to pre-pandemic levels before 2024.
  • For more stories go to

South Africa's tourism sector shed close to 500,000 jobs during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, with stubborn travel restrictions in 2021 piling further pain onto the embattled industry.

Covid-19 crippled the global travel industry. Border closures, flight suspensions, and onerous entry requirements led to a tourism meltdown, with far-reaching consequences for the broader hospitality sector.

South Africa's tourism sector, which prior to the pandemic contributed around 3.7% to the country's total GDP, was one of the hardest hit. The sector, which relies greatly on foreign arrivals for higher visitor spend, was suppressed by targeted travel bans following South Africa's discovery of new Covid-19 variants.

Tourist travel to South Africa dropped by 78% in 2021 compared to pre-pandemic levels in 2019, according to Stats SA, with overseas visitors down 85%.

Almost 1.5 million direct and indirect jobs were supported by South Africa's travel industry prior to the pandemic. This level of employment dropped to less than 990,000 in 2020, representing a reduction of 32.4%, with little reprieve in 2021, as revealed by Tourism Minister Lindiwe Sisulu during a budget vote speech on Thursday.

Direct jobs supported by the industry include hotels, travel agents, airlines, and other passenger transportation services, while indirect employment extends further to employment within hospitality, restaurants, and leisure industries.

"Like a bolt of fire from nowhere, our bustling tourism was brought to a sudden halt with the advent of Covid-19. The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic was immediate and devastating," said Sisulu during her address before parliament.

And although travel to and within South Africa has shown signs of recovery in the first quarter of 2022, tourism activity is still a long way off pre-pandemic levels.

The industry's recovery has been further hampered by the July unrest and recent devastating floods in KwaZulu-Natal, as noted by parliament's portfolio committee on tourism. These factors have resulted in a "negative brand image" for South Africa, further dissuading potential travellers and slowing the recovery process.

And there's no telling when – or even if – international travel will return to levels seen before the pandemic.

"Global tourism is rebounding despite lingering Covid restrictions and the effects of the conflict in Ukraine, but tourist arrival numbers are not back to pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery is slow and uneven across world regions, and this is due to varying degrees of mobility restrictions, vaccination rates, and traveller confidence," said Sisulu.

Most experts believe that international travel will only return to pre-pandemic levels in 2024, at the earliest, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO).

South Africa's tourism department receives a budget of R7.6 billion over the medium term. The bulk of this money will be spent on tourism research, policy, and international relations management.

"Budget allocation has reverted to 2019 allocations as a result of the lifting of global lockdowns and travel bans and vaccination rollouts. The increase in allocation is aimed at recovery initiatives for the sector," noted the portfolio committee.

More than R350 million has been allocated to tourism sector support services, its focus being to enhance transformation, increase skill levels, and support the development of the sector.

'We have thousands of SMMEs throughout our townships, rural areas, and small dorpies offering authentic creative experiences throughout our tourism value chain," said Sisulu of the various initiatives, including the Tourism Incentive Programme, Grading Support Programme, and legally troubled Tourism Equity Fund (TEF), aimed at empowering small businesses.

"These SMMEs are crucial for our goal of inclusive, sustainable tourism and help spread the benefits of tourism to communities outside the traditional tourism hotspots."

Get the best of our site emailed to you every weekday.

Go to the Business Insider front page for more stories.

Rand - Dollar
Rand - Pound
Rand - Euro
Rand - Aus dollar
Rand - Yen
Brent Crude
Top 40
All Share
Resource 10
Industrial 25
Financial 15
All JSE data delayed by at least 15 minutes Iress logo