Garden Route tourism businesses could be spared some of the brunt of sweeping international travel bans that look set to continue to limit travel for an unknown period, as most accommodation bookings for the coming weeks are held by local travellers.
Garden Route stakeholders were preparing for a busy summer season last week, when South African scientists identified the new Omicron coronavirus variant, raising alarm bells abroad.
Even before the travel bans rolled out, Peter Dros, Fancourt Director of Sales & Marketing, told Tourism Update that bookings for December were mostly local. International bookings, at that stage, had only been “trickling in” and Dros said foreign bookings had been less than he had hoped for over December. He had hoped then that international travel would pick up in January and February when the majority of South Africans would be back at work and school, but had already identified COVID infection rates and lockdowns in Europe as factors working against the recovery of international bookings for South Africa before the news of Omicron.
Carene Daniel, Director and Sales Manager of Hello Garden Route, a travel agency and property management company, said rate increases in the region were mostly flat and partners had worked well together to encourage domestic bookings, but there had been a number of international accommodation bookings for two to three weeks over the season. Daniel also indicated that availability of holiday houses would be limited in general this year, as many home owners had decided to occupy their own holiday houses.
Visit Knysna, the Knysna tourism office, has kept its eye on domestic travel patterns throughout the year, adapting headline events such as the Knysna Oyster Festival around COVID-19 protocols. Tourism Information Officer, Thozeka Sikali, said there had been an overall rise in hotel occupancies in 2020 and 2021 across the Western Cape, but recovery had been slower in 2021 after a dip in January with the second wave of COVID-19 infections.
“Domestic arrivals have rebounded quickly and are likely to continue in this way for the near future. Passenger arrivals through the CTIA domestic terminal were highest in October 2021, with 363 511 passengers, representing a recovery rate of 65% of the 2019 figure. George Airport saw domestic arrivals reach 29 129 passengers in October 2021, a recovery rate of 81% of the 2019 figure.”
Sikali said it was fortunate that many of Knysna’s tourism experiences were outdoors, adding that the start to 2021 had been challenging. “The beaches had been closed and we had to encourage our visitors to experience that we had more than just beaches. We had to then host a ‘Limited Edition’ of the Knysna Oyster Festival, promote #WFK (Work From Knysna) and the Kids Stay Free campaigns.
“We are encouraged by the roll-out of vaccinations and are sure that this will be a great summer season for our products. We continue to invite visitors from all over South Africa to ‘get that far away feeling’ in our wide-open spaces. We will continue to promote the simple pleasures and natural adventures on offer in the greater Knysna area.”
Too early to tell
Wesgro CEO, Wrenelle Stander, was hopeful that the new international travel bans relating to the announcement of the Omicron variant would be temporary, but said it was still too early to tally the extent of the fall-out.
She welcomed President Cyril Ramaphosa’s call to countries to urgently reverse the travel restrictions. “Our core international markets showed recovery prior to last week's variant announcement, with increasing tourism volumes for January, February and March. The longer the current restrictions remain in place, the more severe the impact will be on the international source markets that our industry relies on.”
“Visitors can be assured that the Western Cape is well equipped for the pandemic, with World Health Organization COVID-19 protocols already in place. Despite the unforeseen travel bans, we are continuing our support for regional and jewel events and hope to see our domestic market continue to carry the tourism trade whilst we await the lifting of restrictions.”
Stander said the Department of Economic Development and Tourism would be working with industry bodies as well as the National Department of Tourism to ensure that COVID-19 health and safety protocols were in place ahead of the peak season.
While stakeholders and the South African national government continue to rally to have the international bans lifted, Airlink is going ahead with extra flights on its new schedule between Johannesburg and George. Airlink also operates flights between Cape Town and George.