The popular show “Game of Thrones” is a fantasy series focused on the great House of Stark, which has the motto “Winter is coming”, an adaptation of the Shakespearean line, “Now is the winter of our discontent”. The Starks strive to be prepared for the coming winter, which hits their lands the hardest. In essence, what this means is that, even if things are good now (Summer), we must always be ready for the gloomy stage when events turn against us (Winter).
For tourism in Cape Town, “Winter is coming” represents a significant threat. It prompts grumbling in the industry about empty flights, hotel rooms, tour buses and attractions.
The importance of tourism to both Cape Town and South Africa as a whole cannot be overstated. The sector’s direct contribution to national GDP in 2013 was R103.6 billion, 11% more than 2012. And tourism made up as much as 10% of the Western Cape economy and 2.9% of that of the country.
In Cape Town alone the sector ensured that 52 600 people had the means to feed, clothe, house and educate their families. More than half were considered to be unskilled or semi-skilled, and well over a third have permanent employment.
Unsurprisingly, the government of the Western Cape has identified tourism as a priority sector which has the potential to create jobs, especially jobs for those who need them most – people lacking formal skills, training or education.
However, the industry is hampered by seasonality: Cape Town’s hotels, beaches and restaurants are only full for about six months of the year. For the other six months, many people reliant on the sector directly for work, or indirectly through the demand for goods and services supplied to tourists, have to find other ways to generate income.
And many business owners often invest accordingly, gearing their businesses to feast on the summer boom and virtually hibernate in winter, making it unattractive for them to have capital tied up in dormant infrastructure over the winter months. This militates against long-term investment and is ultimately unsustainable. Businesses dependent on tourism are especially vulnerable should an unplanned event negatively affect tourist numbers in the warmer months.
Clearly it would benefit the city, its residents and the players in the tourism sector if ways were found to moderate the feast-or-famine economic cycle seasonality brings.
But there is no magical fix - we cannot change the weather, which moves from warm, dry summers to temperate autumns to cold, wet winters and eventually fresh, crisp springs.
Part of the problem, however, may be reputational. Cape Town is known as an outdoors destination – sea, sun and air. And the gloom of winter may be overstated.
Cape Town Tourism has responded in a number of ways to this. The Hello Weekend domestic tourism campaign, for example, reminds potential visitors of activities in the city, such as arts and cultural happenings or something for the food and wine lovers - even between May and September.
Changing perceptions of winter travel and what the city offers during such months is important, too. So, our initiatives also target overseas markets with a greater appetite for travel in winter - the United States, Brazil and China.
But while this is important work, more is needed. The local and provincial governments and the industry must develop a co-ordinated response to seasonality.
While our beaches and mountains are natural phenomena supporting outdoor tourism when it’s good weather, we need more infrastructure and other attractions that are not weather-dependent. The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa is a good example of this. And the expansion of the Cape Town International Convention Centre – host to the World Economic Forum and numerous trade fairs - is a good start.
We also need a longer-term planning cycle of at least three years for scheduling events in the city. Ideally, events should be spaced evenly throughout the year and flights to Cape Town made available accordingly. This could involve incentivising event organisers to change the dates of their events.
The imbalance as regards leisure travel – which could be up to 90% of tourism – creates an opportunity to grow business tourism. Further potential arises when business travellers return for holidays.
Ultimately, collaboration is core to finding solutions to seasonality. Everyone in the sector has a role to play in ensuring tourism realises its potential to improve lives and grow the economy. We must approach winter as an opportunity to do things differently, to take risks and for collective resources and efforts to be placed behind a well-planned cycle of events for both business and leisure.