Garden Route establishments are gearing up to receive more family business with the return of the Knysna Oyster Festival next month, while recent arrival figures and feedback from booking agents point to a recovery from some unusual source markets.
Demand for COVID-19-friendly outdoor attractions and events and requests for long stays in December are also strengthening the area’s recovery, the feedback shows.
Western Cape tourism in recovery
According to a 2021 Western Cape Tourism Recovery report by the official tourism, trade and investment promotion agency for Cape Town and the Western Cape, Wesgro, domestic passenger arrivals, which peaked in December 2020 but dipped in January and February, recovered in March 2021 by 51% over March 2019 figures.
But, the Wesgro report said, the industry’s international recovery had been slower, with passenger arrivals through the airport’s international terminal in 2020/21 up 23% on December 2019’s figure of 134 021.
Rising source markets
According to Wesgro’s research, Germany has remained one of the province’s top international source markets. However, the agency said other European markets had declined.
Based on the report, the UK and US markets have increased fractionally in the period from January-March 2021 over the previous two years. The report also showed that African markets had also recovered, and Ethiopia, in particular, exceeded its 2019 Q1 figure with a 50%-plus increase in arrivals. Russia and the Philippines were also flagged as sources of new business and showing signs of a “promising recovery”.
Specialist travel agency and property management company, Hello Garden Route, said it was handling many new bookings from Saudi Arabia. Director and Sales Manager, Carene Daniel, said the bookings were mostly for luxury family stays and honeymoons, included Cape Town, and were mostly referral business.
“All our bookings were for beachfront properties and combined safaris. A lot started in Cape Town and then on to safari lodges before ending on the Wilderness beachfront.” Daniel added that her customers from Saudi Arabia were finding inspiration for their Garden Route itineraries through influencer marketing and via their personal digital and social media networks. “They are not booking through normal channels.”
Daniel also mentioned that Hello Garden Route was receiving many requests from domestic travellers for the year-end December peak season. And, there had been more requests for long stays while domestic travellers’ international travel plans remained on hold, she explained.
Top outdoor attractions
Visitor numbers have increased at top Garden Route sites, according to Wesgro’s findings. These include the Cango Caves (up 13% Jan-March 2021 over 2020 figures); the Wilderness National Park (59%); Tsitsikamma National Park (28%); and the Knysna National Park (76%).
The Wesgro report attributed the increased traffic to outdoor attractions overall to the warmer weather in the summer months, as well as “the desire among locals for open spaces that facilitate physical distancing”.
About the research, Tourism Information Officer at Visit Knysna, Thozeka Sikali, said: “Knysna National Park had already exceeded 2019 visitor numbers between October 2020 and January 2021 and Wilderness National Park has reached a recovery rate of 60-75%.”
Passenger arrivals from Saudi Arabia to Cape Town had also increased steadily since October 2020, she said. Based on Wesgro’s report, arrivals grew by 90% in March 2021 from the report’s February figure. “It is likely that these visitors are travelling to the other regions, including the Garden Route,” said Sikali. (Source: OAG Traffic Analyser)
“Domestic passenger arrivals through George Airport have increased steadily since 2020, and reached 59 449 passengers in April 2021, a recovery rate of 89% compared with April 2019. The increase is likely due to domestic travel over the Easter weekend and school holidays. May 2021 saw a recovery rate of 70% compared with May 2019,” she added.
Oyster Festival returns
Knysna Tourism is currently preparing for the return of the annual Knysna Oyster Festival, taking place from July 9-18. This year’s adjusted programme has been themed: ‘Stay, Work, Play’ in Knysna.
Taking COVID-19 protocols and restrictions into account, organisers said many Oyster Festival mainstays would take place this year, albeit in a different format. For example, the Knysna Forest Marathon will be transformed into the In Knysna Virtual Marathon; the Knysna Cycle Tour will take place, however, but might involve a staggered start. This year, a category for e-bikes has also been added.
Other planned highlights from the festival programme include a winter Christmas market in Sedgefield and a sailing regatta, children’s activities and the Houtkapper Trail Run. The final calendar, with details of entries and ticket sales, will be available at http://knysnaoysterfestival.co.za/events/. Special hashtags being used on social media include #knysnaoysterfestival2021 #KOF2021 and #stayworkplay.
Hotel occupancy ups and downs
While the Wesgro report showed the recovery in hotel occupancies dipped in January and February, there was a 43% recovery by March.
However, Peter Dros, Director of Sales and Marketing at Fancourt said: “Everything is pretty much focused on domestic at this stage, as we are in winter, which is a historic trend.
“We are seeing very little international travel at the moment. Bookings for the last quarter of this year and the first quarter of next are still very few and far between, with only a few trickling in. We are hopeful that this changes in the next three months with the vaccine roll-outs both here and overseas.”
Evelyn Pepler from Ocean Odyssey Charters revealed: “Fortunately, due to the arrival of the migrating whales, we have been getting good traction, mostly attributed to our social media posts. Online bookings have increased.”
Ninety percent of the charter company’s business was domestic, and weekends were busy, Pepler said. “Locals are taking the opportunity to explore their back yard. In the last six months, we have had a mix of some international guests. Most of them have been here for some time, opting to sit out lockdown here in South Africa. A good few were here on business and then travelled around.”
She said the remaining 10% of business had come from the German, US, French, Dutch and Swiss markets, with a sprinkling of Chinese, Italian, Spanish, and Russians. “Many I spoke with are here on extended stays – staying for more than three months up to a year, spending longer exploring and immersing themselves in South Africa.”