With the end of the year just around the corner, it’s worth remembering just how different things were at the end of 2021. Far from the anticipated recovery that many in the tourism industry were hoping for, South Africa found itself on a number of COVID-19 travel red lists. At least one major market – in the shape of the UK – only took South Africa off its red list in mid-December. By then, the damage was already done as flight and accommodation bookings had been cancelled.

Even if that had not been the case, however, 2021 may have only represented a partial recovery. Many people may still have been afraid to travel or would have been put off by travel requirements which, at that stage, were still necessary.

Things have been very different this year, especially as countries around the globe scrapped many of their COVID-19 entry requirements and flying became a little easier again. And if South Africa experiences anything like the bumper season Europe had in its Summer, there’s a good chance that we’ll look back on 2022 as the year in which international travel really returned.

A global revival
Before examining how good a holiday season the South African tourism sector can really expect, it’s worth providing some additional context around how much the global travel space has changed since 2021.

Take flights, for instance. According to the Mastercard Economics Institute Travel 2022 report, an estimated 1.5 billion more passengers globally will fly in 2022 compared to last year if flight bookings continue at their current pace. It’s also worth noting that both business and leisure travel levels have returned to pre-pandemic levels. Leisure travel’s bounce back has been particularly noteworthy, with flight bookings rising to 25% above pre-pandemic levels by April.

There are a number of factors behind this rapid bounce back, including a recovery in the labour market, people having paid off debts (meaning more disposable income), and reduced commuting costs thanks to the prevalence of work-from-home. That’s to say nothing of the desire to simply explore again after two years of not being able to.

It’s also worth noting that, strictly speaking, global travel still isn’t as open as it was pre-pandemic. China, one of the world’s biggest travel markets, remains almost totally closed to the outside world. There are, fortunately, signs that this may be changing. In late September, for instance, Hong Kong ended its mandatory hotel quarantine for inbound travellers.

A return to normal?
If mainland China follows suit, that could be a major boon to South African tourism. Pre- pandemic, the country hosted more than 100 000 Chinese tourists a year. If anything like that number were to be added to the international visitors already heading to South Africa, then players in the travel sector would have even more cause for optimism than they currently do.

It may be some time before that’s a reality though. So, what do things look like ahead of the local summer?

One thing that is clear is that there will be a lot more international travellers. At Kruger Gate Hotel, an independent luxury hotel on the edge of the Kruger National Park, right near the popular Paul Kruger Gate, the uptick in international bookings has been pronounced.

“Last year some 90% of the business booked online was South African (domestic) compared to a 55% mix now as the international market starts returning slowly,” says Anton Gillis, CEO of Kruger Gate Hotel. “It’s also interesting to note the lead times which have changed in the last year as the market has started recovering and confidence in booking longer ahead of time has returned. Our lead time for bookings has returned to around 60 days out (two to three months) compared to last year when we were looking at 30 odd days out.”

In a further signal of returning market confidence, Gillis notes that cancellation rates have also fallen significantly.

According to Gillis, the hotel’s biggest markets (outside of domestic travellers) are Germany, the  United Kingdom, the Netherlands, France, and the US.

Opening to new markets
That tracks closely with data from flight search and booking site Cheapflights, which shows that the countries searching most for flights to South Africa are the UK, Germany, US, France, and Austria. Of those, only Germany and the US show fewer searches than in 2019, with the rest showing at least double-digit growth.

The Cheapflights data also shows potential growth markets for the South African tourism sector.

“New Zealand and Zimbabwe flight searches to South Africa for the second half of 2022 are up by around an astounding 222% and 205% respectively compared to the same period in 2019,” says  Laure Bornet, GM, KAYAK EMEA that manages Cheapflights.co.za. “Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are in the top five destinations that also show the highest growth in flight searches to SA – about 126% and 119% respectively. They are closely followed by Poland, with just over 100% increase in flight searches since the pandemic.”

So big has the surge in demand been that five new international routes have either opened or are set to open in the final quarter of 2022.

Travellers also seem keen to explore South Africa in its entirety, rather than sticking to a few select tourism hotspots.

“A broad spectrum of South Africa’s destinations seems to be attracting global travellers,” says Bornet. “According to Cheapflights’ hotel search data, along with Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban, which are always favourite destinations, there is expanded interest in some smaller and unique places in the country.”

Overcoming obstacles
There are, of course, obstacles that the country still has to overcome if it is to reach its full tourism potential. Load shedding and high crime levels remain concerns. While it’s clear that the tourism industry will see the real return of international travel in the Summer of 2022, we should all want more.

“South Africa has so much to offer international travellers,” says Gillis. “As a country, we should be doing everything we can to ensure that they experience those things as safely and comfortably as possible. It’s the only way the industry will keep growing, creating jobs, and contributing to the economy.”

Submitted by Irvine Partners