The balance between accommodation and air access is out of kilter, resulting in tourists visiting new destinations they might not have considered, delegates at last week’s Satsa conference in Stellenbosch were told.

During a panel discussion, the role airlines play in creating new tourism destinations came under the spotlight, with discussions around the importance of demand, and the role the trade plays in communicating that.

South Africa is fortunate, as it is well supplied with air access and seat supply, however certain tourist hot spots are at full capacity and have created a spillage into other regions such as Victoria Falls. With the development of smaller airports and an increase in local air carriers, new routes are being optimised, and this could expand further, creating additional popular tourist spots.

Rodger Foster, CEO of Airlink, who served as Moderator, said as air access improved, destinations boomed, for example from Nelspruit to Vilanculos and Nelspruit to Livingstone, which aim to extend the tourism experience. He said both defied logic by bypassing the hub, yet both were requested by the trade and both continued to grow.

He posed the question, for Southern African hubs to continue growing, does the network of flights to the smaller destinations need to continue expanding? He pointed out that the Eastern Cape was probably the most unvisited tourism jewel, due to lack of air infrastructure.

During the session, it was pointed out that Skukuza Airport had made access to high-end lodges highly accessible, with bed occupancies at full-capacity

Iain Meaker, Executive Manager of Commercial Distribution for Comair, said that when looking for new routes, one had to consider whether to take off an existing route, or start looking at bringing in new destinations and additional frequencies if introducing a new aircraft. He said there was an appetite to grow routes, but not an endless appetite, as it had to be sustainable.

Chief Commercial Officer for fastjet, Sylvain Bosc, touched on the topic of infrastructure and accommodation availability, saying the growth in Cape Town and Johannesburg in terms of new airlines had probably been too fast and the accommodation market had not been able to catch up.

Bosc said there was now a situation of traffic spilling over into places like Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

CEO of Thompsons Africa, Linda Pampallis, said that where the industry asked for additional flights, the destinations had blossomed and grown. She mentioned that the upgrades at Mkhuze airport would hopefully bring tourism into northern KwaZulu Natal.

“As an industry, through our organisations and communication, definitely we must play a role.” She said the trade needed to talk to each other more, understanding that access was vital to grow business, and that the industry needed to be encouraged to be more vocal.