Car rental shortage South Africa
(Getty Images)
  • The size of South Africa's rental car fleet is half of what it was in 2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • Rental car companies have reduced the size of their fleets amid movement restrictions and a diminished demand for travel.
  • And with a bigger demand for December travel this year, holidaymakers who haven't yet booked a rental car are now unlikely to find one in time for their trip.
  • This is especially true for travellers looking to rent a 4x4 vehicle.
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Rental car companies in South Africa have drastically reduced the size of their fleets since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. This shortage is likely to ruin some summer holiday plans.

For much of 2020, movement into and around South Africa was restricted in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. With non-essential travel tightly regulated, or at the very least, dissuaded, many holidaymakers chose to stay put, evident in the drop in national traffic volumes throughout December.

This lull has had a knock-on effect on all aspects of the travel supply chain. From airlines to hotels, buses, and safaris. Businesses which facilitate, or rely on, the movement of people have been some of the hardest hit.

Reacting to the steep drop in demand for travel, rental car companies across South Africa reduced their fleet sizes.

In December 2020, the total number of available rental vehicles across all sectors – cars, 4x4s, and motorhomes – dropped by more than 60% compared to the pre-pandemic year prior. And although rental car companies have already started to scale up their operations in preparation for a busier summer season, the overall fleet is still only around half the size it was in 2019, according to a survey conducted by Drive South Africa.

South Africa's rental vehicle shortage has been exacerbated by a surge in travel bookings, according to the sales and product manager for Drive South Africa, Ellena van Tonder. The survey, which relied on responses from 13 rental companies – including Avis, Europcar, First, Hertz, and Tempest – found that demand for rental vehicles in December in January far outstrips the supply.

"Demand has picked up considerably in recent months and the rental companies are working to replenish their fleets, but this will take time and we will not be able to keep up with demand," said Van Tonder.

The car rental sector's fleet size is down by 45.8%, with around 27,000 fewer vehicles than in 2019. Motorhomes are down by 65.5%.

The 4x4 rental sector, which was the hardest hit in 2020, down 70% from the year prior, is the only fleet which has shown low levels of growth below 10% over the past year. It's still down 70%, less around 900 vehicles, from 2019. Van Tonder explained that 4x4 vehicles are mostly used by international travellers. Ongoing travel bans have repressed the 4x4 fleet.

It's these same travel bans and uncertainty regarding international movements that could leave holidaymakers in the lurch when looking to book a rental car at short notice.

"Due to Covid, people are reluctant to book far in advance because they don't know if travel restrictions may be implemented or a new level of lockdown may be announced, so we find the lead times are much shorter than they used to be," said Van Tonder.

"This may lead to disappointment though, as we are already 99% booked for December and people looking for January rentals should be booking now."

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