Since March 2020, the countries globally were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted to the lockdown restrictions on travel, negatively affecting tourism. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic three years ago, there has been a decline in the international tourist arrivals in South Africa by 82%, from 339 007 in 2017 to 58 271 in 2021 (Ngema, 2022).
When the lockdown restrictions on travel were uplifted on the 5th April 2022 in South Africa, allowing travel to resume again, there was a ray of hope for the country’s economic recovery, however, in less than a week after the removal of travel restrictions, the province of KwaZulu-Natal was affected by severe flooding and landslides, which resulted to the death of 448 people, displaced over 40 000 people and completely destroyed over 12 000 homes (ECHO, 2022).
The infrastructures such as roads, schools, health care centres were severely damaged. Durban, also known as eThekwini, is amongst the cities that were greatly affected. The floods isolated Durban from the rest of the world due to inaccessibility and brought tourism associated with the Easter holidays to a complete halt.
Thirteen beaches in this destination of choice for the beach enthusiasts were closed with immediate effect due to the increased levels of E. coli in water, which compromised the recreational activity, making it challenging to promote Durban as a tourist destination (Ngema, 2022), since all the water activities such as swimming, surfing, fishing, bathing and canoeing were prohibited.
The floods and associated beach closures occurred during a critical time when the tourists were still trying to regain their confidence in travelling and overcoming the fear of contacting the notorious COVID-19 pandemic as a result of media reports on detected new strains and variants of this pandemic.
The impact of Durban beach closures in the economy
The Durban beach closures due to the contamination of sea water have a direct impact on the tourism industry considering the fact that the festive season is around the corner. The compromised water quality due to the increased levels of E. coli has resulted to the postponement of Oceans 8 Charity Swim to 2023, to ensure the safety of the swimmers, protect the integrity of the event and the reputation of their sponsors.
During September, the eThekwini Municipality opened some of the beaches that had been closed, however, the water samples that were tested indicated that the water quality is still not at acceptable levels, therefore forcing some of the beaches to be closed with immediate effect (TimesLive, 19 September 2022).
The beach closures serve as a blow to the city’s, the region’s and the national economy, due to the decrease in the number of visitors to the city and the feared job losses for the surfers and the employees in the tourism establishments along the affected beaches. Tungay (2022) indicated that the ongoing spills and increased E. coli levels have a direct impact not only in the accommodation sector, but in all the other attractions and facilities along the beach in eThekwini.
The beach closures mean that there are no outdoor activities, no restaurant visits, no car rentals and no economic activity for a lot more other businesses that depend on tourism for survival (Bhoola, 2022).
Each tourism destination has a competitive edge which serves as a magnet which motivates tourists to choose it over the other destinations.
Most tourists visit Durban because of its beaches that are warm throughout the year, and which hold a Blue flag status, an eco-award given to beaches that meet specific, strict standards of excellence in safety, cleanliness, the provision of amenities, environmental information and management, which the city has since lost due to the increased levels of E. coli. Therefore, the beach closures discourage tourists from choosing Durban as the destination of choice, therefore losing out on business from the tourists, which serves as a blow to the city’s, provincial and national economy.
Suggested Recovery Plans
The impacts the floods had on Durban reveal the underlying factors of the collapsing infrastructure and the suggested strategy to counteract this challenge is to hold a joint sitting between various stakeholders in eThekwini, such as the Infrastructure units, the Human Settlements division, the ECOD, the community services and the business community to clear the sea water of E. coli and come up with a collaborated/ joint plan to counter the effects of the collapse of service delivery in eThekwini through rapid infrastructure upgrades.
The priority right now is to embark on a tourism recovery plan to restore the visitor confidence to eThekwini as a favourable destination for international, domestic and local tourists.