Inbound tourism started the year on the back foot after a tumultuous year last year, and now there is the rapid global spread of COVID-19 (coronavirus), but the ambitious target of 21 million tourists coming to South Africa by 2030 is still achievable.

This is according Senior Consultant Tourism Specialist Unit at market analyst BDO, Jabulani Debedu, who acknowledged the challenges but expressed hope that there was room for growth.

The annual figures from Statistics South Africa revealed recently that the country had received 244 000 fewer inbound tourists in 2019 compared with 2018.

International tourist numbers to South Africa dropped by 2.3% and African tourist numbers declined by 2.4%.

Debedu told Tourism Update that this was only the second time in nearly a decade that South Africa had experienced an annual decline in international tourists.

“The issue around safety and security is one of the factors behind this decline in international tourist numbers but is also for concern for African tourists.

“The xenophobic attacks in August 2019 led to a 27% drop in Nigerian tourists coming to South Africa, with tourists from Ghana and the DRC dropping by 13% and 6% respectively. These countries are major tourism source markets for South Africa.”

According to Debedu, African tourism accounts for 74% of South Africa’s foreign tourist arrivals. He suggested that increased unified marketing in those key source markets, as well as security clusters ensuring the safety of tourists, should be a priority.

The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in KwaZulu Natal will undoubtedly have a major impact on tourism. Debedu said it would take the outbound and inbound tourism industry 18 months to three years to recover. “It’s much bigger than Ebola in 2015 and has impacted our major source markets of Germany, Italy and France. INSOL Cape Town was cancelled because of COVID-19 and this conference is a key driver for business tourism, usually bringing more than 2 000 delegates.”

The positive impact on the industry by the relaxation of visa policies and resolving the issue of unabridged birth certificates won’t be seen this year due to the coronavirus. However, Debedu believes it is still early for President Ramaphosa to relook the 2030 goal of 21 million tourists.

“We’re starting this year on the back foot, having lost all the 2018 growth in 2019,” explained Debedu. “We need an annual growth of 6% to reach 21 million tourist by 2030. In 2016, the number of foreign tourists grew by 12.8% so there is still a chance to reach that goal.”