Drowned out by the plaintive pleas of tourism business owners, a deluge of statistics and the practised speeches of politicians are stories like that of Simon Lebombo.
Simon, a senior field guide with the MORE Family Collection and a member of that team for two decades in varying roles, is more than a mere number in the 1.5 million people whose livelihoods are directly or indirectly dependent on tourism.
A resident of Huntington, Mpumalanga, Simon is the head of a family of 12. Not only are his earnings shared amongst his wife and children, he is also responsible for the family of his brother, who died.
With the COVID-19 lockdown, the significant portion of Simon’s salary that was gratuities has fallen away, leaving his family of 12 dependent on just a quarter of what he once earned. Simon is one of the lucky ones. He still has a job.
For many of the remote communities on the edge of the Kruger National Park, tourism is their only lifeline, with 40.8% unemployment and one job supporting an estimated 10 people. Some 336 250 people in poorer local communities adjacent to parks are reliant on the private game lodge industry.
But South Africa’s game lodges provide substantial benefits to communities and areas in which they operate countrywide. Of the 19 700 people employed by South Africa’s 496 private game lodges, 16 600 are from local communities.
Game lodges pay salaries to local employees amounting to R1.5bn (€74.4m) a year, they spend R1.2bn (€59.5m) annually on local procurement, R190m (€9.4) on community projects and almost R789m (€39.1m) on conservation programmes. They also need about R500 000 (€24 792) a month to stay afloat, and with little to no income since the March lockdown, there is a limit to how long these businesses can remain open.
A recent survey among game lodges conducted by SATSA, indicated that 16% of lodges would not have cash flow to survive beyond July; 36% could survive for two to three months (until September), and a further 34% would run out of cash between October and December.
Switching the game lodge sub-sector back on for domestic leisure tourism would save many of these businesses, which have been among the hardest hit by the lockdown. But more than that, it would save the communities in these areas from staring down the stark reality of food insecurity.
Now is the time to allow game lodges to reopen, safely, for the normal domestic travel market. Some R83.7bn (€4.1bn) is spent annually on international outbound tourism. Just a small portion of this would assist the lodges to survive.
And there is local demand. The winter season, particularly July, August and September, is peak game-viewing season. The strong market of South African bush lovers know this, and many would be grateful for the opportunity to enjoy a more affordable, luxury bush experience, an escape from urban lockdown life to open spaces and the bush.
But even more than the wellbeing of local travellers is the need for funds for wildlife conservation for the success of wildlife tourism – the mainstay of South Africa’s tourism assets.
Without tourism revenues, the conservation funds needed to support maintenance, anti-poaching and security, as well as flora and fauna management programmes, are dwindling. Coupled with this is the very real threat of starvation on the fringes of conservation areas, which would drive desperate communities to rely on bush meat for their survival.
Given the low guest numbers, low employee interactions, limited guest turnover and staff living onsite or moving only in lodge transport, there simply is no reason why this sub-section of tourism should remain closed. That is, if the fear around reopening is safeguarding the wellbeing of staff and guests.
And if we don’t open soon, the game lodge industry outlook for the coming months and the rest of the year looks exceptionally bleak. Without domestic leisure reopening soon, and then the reopening of borders in the next few months, many of these lodges will slowly close their doors over the next six months as cash flow runs out.
This will result in the 32 000 jobs in the communities and the annual R3.44bn (€170m) spent in local areas on salaries, procurement, conservation and community projects being lost.
Reopening the game lodge sector for inter-provincial leisure travel would be an easy win for government. Those 496 game lodges could reopen their doors tomorrow, get people back to work and put that money back into conservation and the communities.
Those incredible individuals, like Simon, who have committed their lives to tourism, simply cannot be forgotten.
Intra-provincial leisure travel is set to open soon but industry has yet to receive firm dates on inter-provincial and international borders being opened.