SA's tourism industry prepares for an influx of loaded UK tourists – and capacity isn't an issue

Business Insider SA
SA UK tourism summer
(Getty Images)
  • South Africa was recently removed from the United Kingdom's red list, reopening travel between the countries on Monday.
  • Since the announcement, travel enquiries for holidays under the South African sun have surged.
  • And although the Covid-19 pandemic has led to business closures and layoffs, South Africa's tourism and hospitality sectors will quickly be able to scale capacity to meet demand.
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South Africa's beleaguered tourism sector is preparing for an influx of British visitors ahead of the busy summer season. This comes amid the United Kingdom's decision to ease travel restrictions between the two countries.

The UK has traditionally been South Africa's largest source market for tourists. More than 430,000 UK tourists visited South Africa in 2019, representing almost 30% of all European arrivals. It's estimated that UK tourists pump up to R790 million into the economy every month during the busy season.

But the global Covid-19 pandemic, associated lockdowns, and travel bans – in this instance, the UK's traffic light system – ground international tourism to halt. Less than 11,000 UK travellers entered South Africa during the first half of 2021, a drop of more than 95% compared to pre-pandemic levels.

The UK recently removed South Africa from the red list – a category of Covid-19 risk which restricted travel and enforced a costly mandatory quarantine period – to the delight of the tourism industry.

And interest in South African summer vacations has surged, with travel agencies and tour operators reporting a flurry of bookings. Some of these even came in anticipation of South Africa being removed from the red list.

"The number of quotes this [last] week [between 4 and 8 October] was the highest in 19 months, with quotes from the UK up 150% and confirmed bookings up 100% on the same week a month prior," Craig Smith, the CEO of New Frontiers Tours, told Business Insider South Africa.

"This was just in anticipation of the green list, and we expect significantly higher numbers next [this] week once the revised status has been digested by the marketplace."

Rhino Africa, which offers safaris and tours in the region, reported pre-Covid-19 enquiry levels following the reopening of travel between the UK and South Africa.

"We expect to see momentum continue to build through October. Since Thursday [7 October, when South Africa was removed from the red list], we have confirmed over R11 million in new sales with 60% of all sales for the November/December 2021 travel period," David Ryan, CEO and founder of Rhino Africa told Business Insider SA.

"This is exciting news for our industry and no doubt our next collective challenge will be capacity of our industry to cope with the increased demands given the significant but necessary cuts we were forced to make. This is the type of challenge we all welcome."

South Africa's tourism sector – hit harder than most due to international travel bans emanating from panic over the Beta variant – has seen businesses close and jobs lost. This extends to the hospitality sector, part of the tourism sector's ecosystem, with restaurants and hotels battered by harsh lockdown restrictions imposing alcohol bans and curfews.

But the tourism sector's challenge to scale in time for the arrival of UK visitors isn't as tough as preparations which would be faced by other industries in anticipation of rapidly increased demand. This is according to the Federated Hospitality Association of Southern Africa (Fedhasa), which points to valuable skills being retained in the country throughout lockdown, despite job cuts and downscaling.

"Obviously, people have consolidated and reduced staffing, however, all that expertise is still here... the knowledge of the people and all the infrastructure," Fedhasa's national chairperson, Rosemary Anderson, told Business Insider SA.

"So, people can gear up very quickly and that's the wonderful thing about hospitality. So many people are hungry and desperate for the industry to get the business that it needs, so I don't think that capacity will be a problem at all. Staffing won't be a problem, people will get back to work as quickly as possible."

The Covid-19 pandemic also forced businesses to be nimbler and more innovative, qualities which Anderson says will actually help them during the upcoming summer season. While it's still to be seen whether tourism numbers match pre-pandemic levels over the next five months, Anderson believes that cabin fever and unspent currency could likely culminate in a boom.

"If you look what's happened in the UK, the moment they were allowed to travel anywhere they were on the next plane, there was such a demand," said Anderson.

"Also, people will be starved for our sun, it hasn't been a great summer in the UK. And people have had 20 months of income that they haven't spent on restaurants and all the rest like they used to, so there's lots of disposable income in the UK, more so than ever, that they'll hopefully be spending in South Africa."

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