Tourism in South Africa only gained momentum and growth after the first democratic elections of 1994, which is why this sector is considered a missed opportunity for the country due to the Apartheid regime that excluded Blacks as a previously disadvantaged group from actively participating in mainstream tourism and saw South Africa losing out on various economic activities such as trading with first world countries (National Tourism Sector Strategy, 2012).
The onset of democracy prioritized creating equal opportunities for all which created platforms for Blacks to get into this industry as emerging Small, Medium and Micro enterprises (SMMEs)In 2020, the whole world was hit by the Corona virus, also known as the COVID-19 pandemic, the virus that had never been experienced before and which left the tourism industry being the hardest hit.
A year later, the future of this industry continues to look uncertain. The onset of COVID-19 forced the closing of borders to international tourists, which brought hope to the country’s tourism sector as this move was perceived as creating opportunities for the domestic tourism to flourish, however, it became evident that domestic tourism cannot flourish on its own, in isolation from the international travelers and their spend in foreign currency.
It was clear that COVID-19 and associated restrictions impacted negatively on both the domestic and international travel. The tourism businesses have experienced a blow with most of them being forced to close down, resulting to job losses and increasing the unemployment rate that is at its peak in South Africa and which was sitting at 28,48% in 2020.
It then becomes necessary for the government to offer support to ensure that fewer tourism establishments close down. As a medium to long-term measure, the government needed to come up with policy adjustments to serve as a risk preparedness plan for the future. With so many tourism businesses closing, it is evident that before the onset of COVID-19, the country did not have this kind of a plan in place, which proved to be a gap in the existing policy, which had to prioritise strengthening the co-operation between countries to restore traveler confidence when travelling to various destinations.
When COVID-19 was first experienced, the world’s citizens thought it would be gone in no time, but a year later it is still in existence and posing in different strains, therefore it becomes necessary for the various government departments in collaboration with the private sector to come up with a coordinated plan, with flexible policy solutions to enable the tourism industry to co-exist with this notorious pandemic to avoid further job losses.
To revamp the tourism sector, strategies build a stronger, more sustainable and resilient tourism economy need to be put in place, not only for the present, but also for the future. The United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO 2020) envisions a decline in international arrivals close to 70% with pre-crisis levels not to be expected before 2023. In August 2020, the South African government released a draft Tourism Recovery plan for public consultation. This draft plan suggested strategic interventions such as stimulating domestic demand, launching investment and resource mobilization programmes and regional tourism integration, which are all aligned to the country’s Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan (ERRP).
After a vigorous consultation, the cabinet then approved the Tourism Sector Recovery Plan in April 2021 with the aim of job retention, improved livelihoods and the creation of new opportunities. This plan is aimed at strengthening transformational interventions in the sector and enhance the empowerment of the emerging and vulnerable SMMEs in the sector, namely, the youth, women and people living with disabilities.
Whilst the government has approved the ERRP, but its implementation can only be a success if the private sector puts some strategies in place on the ground, which amongst others include deep cleaning and sanitizing as part of the cleaning protocols to restore the tourists’ confidence in the services that are rendered.
New health safety measures should be adopted such as the reduction of the occupancy rate and ensuring that the guest activities are limited to only those that take place in open air settings.
It is acknowledged that the suggested measures such as the reduction of occupancy rate at hotels and in the process ensuring the safety of visitors, however, they can impact negatively on the business sustainability, resulting in the increase of prices.
The other suggested measure is to minimize personal interaction and adopt a shift to technologies, and limiting gatherings to a certain number, which can also result to job losses for those who depend on the tourism sector for survival.
As much as the tourism industry was hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it can still recover if the government comes up with an integrated and coordinated plan which is inclusive of other significant stakeholders, such as the private sector to minimize job losses and improve the lives of the emerging businesses in the sector, as well as strengthening visitor confidence through taking stringent precautionary measures.
Dr Mabuyi Gumede
Lecturer: Cultural and Heritage Tourism
UKZN: Howard College Campus