South Africa’s tourism sector continues to suffer under the weight of COVID-19. And there’s no end in sight, as new restrictions dampen all hope for a recovery to even begin. Sertan Sanderson reports from Cape Town.

Just days before New Year’s Eve, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that the country was going back to tougher lockdown measures once more. Millions of South Africans felt more than annoyed at the reintroduction of an alcohol ban in the midst of the festive season — as well as a curfew starting at 9:00 p.m. each night. 

But among those that took the news really hard were the 722,000 South Africans working in the country’s struggling tourism sector. Following months of lockdown and immigration bans they had just recently returned to their jobs — if they still had them — at the beginning of November, when South Africa fully opened its borders for the first time since the COVID-19 lockdown in late March 2020.

Travel agent Liesl Matthews says 2020 was her worst year

“Our arrival numbers are still incredibly low — they’re 90% less than the previous year,” explains Liesl Matthews, one of the owners at the Southern Destinations travel agency in Cape Town, which focuses on bespoke travel solutions and safaris throughout southern Africa.

“When March 2020 arrived, it all came crashing down in a heap,” she said.

Shop local

Matthews spent the first four months of the lockdown period working on “moving reservations from 2020 to 2021, and trying to convince clients that this was the best course of action.”

Karien de Villiers, a chef working at the luxurious Phelwana game lodge in the northeast of the country, observed a similar pattern: “Working in the tourism industry, we had so many guests canceling their bookings in 2020. A few of them, we could encourage to move it to a later date, but with the uncertainty of this virus and what is going to happen down the line, most of them still canceled, and refunds had to be done,” she told DW.

To keep the cash flow going, Phelwana focused on the local market instead, offering discounts and special packages for South Africans: “Under normal circumstances, South African guests make up a very small percentage of our clientele, as we mostly have foreign guests staying with us. That being said, South African travelers have really stepped up and thrown their support behind the tourism industry by booking weekends away and exploring their own country.”

You booze, you lose

Leena Hendricks*, duty manager at a guesthouse in Franschhoek — an upscale gourmet town in the Cape Winelands — says that because of severe lockdown restrictions earlier in 2020, she couldn’t really benefit from plugging into the local market: “Usually, after March our quiet season begins but you still get a lot of local travelers, who come for wine tastings and festivals. But this year, everyone was restricted to their homes during lockdown. For months, we couldn’t do anything.”

And with the announcement of the latest COVID restrictions, Hendricks says that she fears a repeat of the same situation this year:

“I could just cry. This is terrible. When the president announced this new kind of lockdown, we got five cancellations the next morning. People come to Franschhoek to drink wine and to eat at the restaurants. They don’t want to come here if they have to be back in their rooms sober before the sun has even gone down. This is a terrible, terrible idea.”

1 thought on “Tourism in South Africa: an industry under lockdown fights for its own survival

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