South Africa’s tourist arrivals are growing steadily, despite the complex global challenges of rising inflation and energy prices that have led to household budget constraints across the world.
This was reflected in the latest tourism arrival data for January to March 2023, released by Tourism Minister Patricia de Lille during a media briefing at Africa’s Travel Indaba on Wednesday (May 10).
“The pandemic undoubtedly left a dent in the tourism industry, but we're back, stronger than ever, and geared to catapult our inbound tourism numbers beyond pre-COVID levels,” De Lille said.
She said there were 2.1 million international arrivals to South Africa during the period, a 102.5% increase compared with the same period in 2022.
“While still 21.5% lower than 2019 levels, we're gaining ground rapidly. The African continent led the way again with 1.6 million arrivals, followed by Europe's 387 000 and the Americas' 104 000 visitors. The world is rediscovering South Africa and, together, we'll not only reach, but surpass pre-COVID numbers,” she highlighted.
In the first quarter, foreign direct spend soared to R25.3 billion (€1.2bn), a 143.9% increase compared with Q1 of 2022. Tourists from Europe contributed the most spend of R10,8 billion (€521m), followed by Africa with R9,3 billion (€449m).
“The overall foreign spend figure for quarter one this year is tantalisingly close to the R25.6 billion (€1.2bn) spent between January and March 2019 and showcases the industry's unwavering resilience,” De Lille said.
“We witnessed remarkable growth in spending from our Zimbabwean and Mozambican visitors, with Q1 2023 figures reaching R4.4 billion (€212m) (50% above 2019 performance) and R1.1 billion (€53m) (12% above 2019 performance) respectively,” she said.
However, visitors from the UK splurged less, their spend dipping 27% to R3.2 billion (€154m), while visitors from the US contributed R2.6 billion (€125m), surging 28% above the 2019 performance.
De Lille said 2022 had heralded a resurgence in tourism, with nearly 5.8 million visitors, including four million arrivals from Africa, a 152.6% increase compared with 2021.
“Across the board, we've seen a 102% surge in total arrivals from 2022 to 2023 during Q1, reflecting South Africa's attractiveness to international visitors. The number of bed nights has also recovered but not to the Q1 2019 levels,” De Lille said.
“A significant driver of these remarkable figures is as a result of lifting of travel restrictions and affordability. After two years of restrictions and confinement, travellers are eager to explore wide-open spaces, and South Africa offers these in abundance.”
She said despite a 44.3% drop in long-haul international arrivals in 2022 compared with 2019, the country achieved “an outstanding” 141.9% increase compared with 2021.
“The global landscape has posed challenges, including inflation, rising energy prices, and the Russia-Ukraine conflict, leading to economic constraints worldwide,” she said.
‘Domestic tourism has shown ‘incredible resilience’
De Lille said domestic tourism had also shown “incredible resilience” surpassing pre-pandemic levels and those of the first quarter of 2022.
“As the world reawakens, tourists are flocking back to South Africa, enticed by our unparalleled natural beauty and the warmth of our people. We are broadcasting a clear message: South Africa is open for tourism, welcoming business, and eagerly awaiting travellers from across Africa and the globe,” the minister revealed.
She said to surpass pre-COVID-19 tourism arrivals and spend required a united effort, between the government, the private sector, civil society, and the tourism industry, to redefine the country’s travel experience.
Tourism Business Council of South Africa CEO Tshifhiwa Tshivhengwa welcomed the release of the data saying the industry relied on the swift release of tourism data for its marketing and planning purposes.
“In the past we used to have data very late but there has been a huge improvement and now we have data very fast – we are already talking about data from March. We use data for planning purposes, and it is important this data becomes available as soon as possible so we know which markets to target. For us, data is everything – we know how much they are going to be spending and we get to understand the sentiments of the source markets,” he said.
“The statistics are looking very good we are looking forward to a good year ahead. It looks like we are going to reach some of our 2019 numbers by October.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Tourism arrivals data is sourced from the Department of Home Affairs, which collects information from all ports of entry monthly before Stats SA refines it in line with international standards into subset tourist categories.
SA Tourism also carries out a monthly survey involving departing foreigners at OR Tambo and Cape Town International Airports, and from 12 border posts with the most arrivals.