Plunged into a post-COVID world, the travel industry has had to adapt to an entirely different operating environment to survive. A recent Africa Travel Week 2021 panel discussion asked African travel experts what they had learnt during this period.
The need for a robust domestic market
Discussing how South Africa had been plunged from a period of mass tourism to an environment where the entire industry had had to search within the often-overlooked domestic market for clients, Extraordinary Marketing Concept’s Director, Cindy Sheedy Walker, explained that tourism companies had had to entirely change the way they strategised and engaged with source markets over the last 12 months.
“For long-term sustainability, South Africa needs to develop a robust source market of domestic, regional and international travellers. Imagine if we were to move on from this crisis without taking what we had learnt about the importance of the domestic market to heart, only to find ourselves faced with a future challenge of this nature,” said Walker.
She also predicted that there would be no short-term rebound to a 2019 pre-COVID travel environment. “Our industry needs to embrace a permanent move away from mass tourism, crowded attractions and large coach trips and find ways to make travel sustainable with fewer tourists, even if this meant that prices needed to go up in some instances.”
City of Cape Town’s Head of Tourism Destination Development, Dr Theuns Vivian, agreed commenting that while responsible tourism was part of South Africa’s White Paper, it was still not part of the country’s DNA yet.
“We need to take radical steps to utilise tourism to enable social upliftment, and one of the ways that this can be done is by abolishing VAT on domestic travel. This will immediately discount domestic travel prices by 15% and make local travel accessible to more South Africans, including families," said Vivian.
“A year ago, we had no formula on how to operate and had to learn on the go but we soon found, when we were cut off from international markets, that we needed to embrace social media more prominently,” said SATSA Chair, Oupa Pilane, who is also a Director of the Graskop Gorge Lift Co.
“We realised that we had more success when we started to market the entire area that we are based in rather than focusing purely on Graskop Gorge Lift Co. These wider destination marketing campaigns had the reaction of engaging with the public who had been unaware of how much the area we are based in had to offer.”
Pilane said the company also encouraged local travellers to share their own experiences of the area on social media, which kick-started a lot of interest. “The posts that people were seeing were now not only those where a product owner was trying to sell their experience but posts where common stakeholders were interacting with each other, taking pride in the areas that they lived in and showcasing what was on offer. Through this engagement we soon found that locals make the best ambassadors.”
More collaboration with SADC
According to Pilane, Graskop Gorge Lift Co’s biggest source markets prior to COVID originated from neighbouring countries Mozambique and Swaziland.
“Prior to COVID we were hardly engaging with these markets, spoilt with international travellers and in the belief that SADC visitors would automatically return to Mpumalanga for shopping excursions.
“The closure of our borders made us realise that these markets were our bread and butter and has led us to strengthen the communications between these markets and to encourage our marketing authorities to establish networks in these regions,” he added.
Walker agreed, saying the establishment of bilateral agreements that enabled easy travel between different countries in the region was essential for the industry. She felt that government should be bringing all its departments together to urgently facilitate this.
She added that this would also bode well for the return of international traffic, as the multiple and costly PCR tests currently required to book a Southern African itinerary were hampering inbound bookings.
Isolation is not the long-term solution
Despite the panellists’ agreement on the need to develop domestic and regional markets for South Africa, none believed that isolation could be the long-term solution for the travel industry.
“The local market can only do so much. We are operating in a depressed economic environment and people are short of cash. There is a small market of day and short-break visitors that we can sharpen our marketing efforts to focus in on, but to rely entirely on them is not sustainable. We must continue to pursue engagements with international source markets to ask them why, when our safety precautions are in place, can South Africa not be considered as a destination to travel to,” said Vivian.
“It is also essential that we displace South Africa’s connection to the new variant, which has been coupled with our name. We need to be actively engaging with ambassadors to explain how their travel advisories are causing problems for us. We need to ask them to look at the facts and the precautions that are in place and make recommendations about travel to South Africa based on this. South Africa has always had to address the safety concerns of visitors but while this was purely related to crime in the past, our initiatives now need to take this new aspect of COVID safety into consideration in our communications.”
He added that Cape Town had been making a concerted effort to ensure that timely and accurate information about the COVID situation in South Africa was constantly updated on the city’s various websites. “This is being done in order to re-instil confidence in Cape Town and to allow potential visitors to make informed decisions about visiting the area.”
Vivian said the silver lining of this dark COVID cloud was the amount of pent-up travel demand that had been created. “We have to remain top of mind during this period to be able to capitalise on this as soon as it is acceptable to travel internationally again. South Africa is ready to receive international visitors again and we are just waiting for the doors to open to us again.”