The resumption of Cathay Pacific’s direct flight between Hong Kong and Johannesburg has provided a boon to post-COVID travel from mainland China to South Africa, and tour operators are optimistic that the so-far slow return of tourists from China will accelerate in 2024.
Shanna Docherty, Cathay Pacific’s Regional Head of Trade Sales for Middle East and Africa, told Tourism Update that since the flight’s resumption in August, the airline had been heartened by a strong initial rebound in outbound travel from South Africa, followed by a rebound of inbound passengers.
“We now observe a good balance on both the inbound and outbound flights, which is extremely promising. We have been operating flights from Johannesburg for over 25 years, and we aim to return to our pre-pandemic capacity by next year. The demand has been highly encouraging, not only for the resumption but also for our forward booking trends,” said Docherty, adding that numbers from Hong Kong and China for the high season were looking healthy.
“South Africa’s attributes are attracting leisure travellers to visit without the need to break the bank. With a large expat community of Chinese residents living in South Africa, it is a great way for families abroad to visit during the festive season,” said Docherty, pointing out that the airline’s intermodal land-sea offering from the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay area was providing more options to connect to South Africa.
Operators optimistic of faster growth
Since travel from China began opening up in March this year, with the return of Air China and subsequently Cathay Pacific, South Africa has witnessed a slow but steady flow of tourists from the country.
According to the latest statistics from Statistics South Africa, inbound arrivals from China are well below those of pre-COVID: a total of 1 316 tourists arrived from China in October 2023, compared with 7 969 in October 2019.
Terry Fenton-Wells, Owner of SA Magic Travel, said numbers had been returning at a slower pace than expected, mainly due to the high price of air tickets and financial pressures placed on leisure travellers.
“This flows down into higher prices for tour packages. Demand is certainly there, however. We have enough flight capacity and have welcomed a number of high-end groups as well as business travellers, including an incentives group of 350 people, but the mainstream market is struggling to recover,” said Fenton-Wells.
She said the industry remained upbeat on the potential for the Chinese market in 2024. “We are optimistic about the prospects for next year, although the target demographics may start to shift away from leisure travellers. There is confidence that the business and incentives market from China will perform strongly.”
South African Tourism has set an ambitious target of attracting one million tourists per year from the Asian giant by 2030.
Docherty said Cathay Pacific was maintaining close partnerships with travel agents in both South Africa and China to cater for the demand for travel between the two countries.
“In the future, we look forward to connecting different cities in South Africa to Asia, facilitating a link between two diverse cultures and opening opportunities for business and leisure through our travel and cargo business. Overall, it is a very optimistic picture for us, and we are grateful for the warm welcome and support from our loyal customers with our return to South African skies.”