Tourism sector needs to think out the box to find new ways to lure visitors
Travel & tourism in SA must prepare and should be focusing on rewiring itself radically rather than trying to return to the past.
Travel and tourism in South Africa must prepare for more than just an inconvenient shake-up. The fundamentals of the entire sector are shifting and a united front is vital if the country is to strategize an intelligent response for the future.
Over the past few weeks we’ve seen protests in Cape Town and Johannesburg, calling to reopen a sector that has seen income plummet by 98% since May 2020, according to the Tourism Business Council of South Africa, and has put some 600 000 direct tourism jobs at stake.
We’ve heard predictions that the sector will only start recording strong numbers again by early 2022, and been told by Cape Town Tourism that 56% of businesses polled don’t have a recovery plan in place. In fact, many businesses believe they won’t survive an extended period of lockdown.
We’ve seen the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town become the first tourism attraction in the world to be awarded a so-called global safety and hygiene stamp; the brainchild of the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) and an attempt to certify that all safety and hygiene protocols have been put in place to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. Stellenbosch has also been given the stamp, alongside the likes of international destinations such as Dubai, UAE; St Petersburg, Russia; and Malaga in Spain. Countries such as Jordan, Tunisia and Kenya have also been awarded the ‘stamp’.
Such moves are, understandably, an attempt to reassure tourists that safety protocols are in place; with the ultimate hope that the financially lucrative international tourism sector can be kickstarted to return to ‘normal’. After all, the WTTC estimates that up to 50 million jobs in the sector could be lost as a result of Covid-19 and the industry, which accounts for about 10% of global GDP, could take almost a full year to recover after the pandemic ends.
Unfortunately, most of these efforts are being directed towards an ultimate return to a status quo we left behind in early 2020. A return to that ‘normal’. However, as my colleague at the Gordon Institute of Business Science, Professor Adrian Saville, recently commented during a LinkedIn discussion, we are not dealing with a ‘new normal’ and the return to the ‘old normal’ is looking increasingly unlikely. What we are facing now, both as countries and a global community is a ‘new’. This means that the tourism and travel sector should not be focusing on ways in which to return to the past but to rewire itself completely.
A fork in the road
As a futurist and academic I work with likelihoods and scenarios, and there are three potential directions in which we are likely to see the travel and tourism sector heading over the next few years.
The first is an extreme impact: Hit by the collapse of airlines around the world, the cost of travel is driven up and global tourism numbers decline. The second envisages a mixture of high-end travellers from abroad and local and regional tourism. The third – and in my opinion the least likely of the three options – is the soft scenario, where travellers flood to new destinations and prop up the global industry as they shake off the frustration of lengthy lockdowns.
Fundamentally, I believed that while tourism will recover in pockets, the global industry must be smarter about attracting numbers, servicing tourists and marketing effectively.
This outlook is based on a number of factors, not least of which is the issue of convenience. This was so neatly underlined recently when the UK did a rapid about-turn on its Spanish ‘travel corridor’ decision and declared that travellers returning from Spain and its holiday islands must self-quarantine for 14 days. As numbers spike and subside over the course of the next few months (and possibly even years, depending on the availability of an effective and long-term vaccine), this sort of inconvenience will drive more travellers to seek solace in domestic breaks, and possibly regional holidays.
This psychological shift – or what I refer to as cognitive rewiring – will be supported by the challenges facing the aviation industry to ensure that hygiene standards are up to task of transporting people safely. Air travel will, therefore, become a protracted process requiring widespread screening. We will see longer lead times, the need for lengthy waits while planes are decontaminated after each flight, and the checking and double-checking of passengers. There is every possibility that, in addition to your visa requirements, you will now need a medical certificate and potentially be subjected to lengthy quarantine periods either before or after travelling – as the UK situation attests. Your ticket itself will be more expensive, due to supply and demand factors.
A new approach to travel
For many of us for whom business travel was the norm and who enjoyed family holidays jet-setting around the globe, this sort of travel apocalypse is a frightening prospect. But the past few months have opened our eyes to the potential for virtual engagement, of work-from-home realities and about the heavy environmental toll human travel has on the planet.
All together these collective realisations – together with the all-important cost factor – will seriously impact the business travel market in particular. Instead of flying to London for a quick two-day conference, and dealing with medical vetting, probable quarantine periods and an arduous travel process, many of us will now choose the more economical and safer virtual experience.
When we do travel for business or leisure it is likely – at least initially – to be closer to home; where we can drive rather than fly. Our metal cocoons will give us greater control over social distancing and personal security, the cost will be less than via air and hitting the road will cut out annoyances such as lengthy queues and elongated safety protocols and the general frustration of the airport experience.
In short, prepare for more mini domestic breaks and for local and regional road trips, ideally to destinations that have the hygiene stamp of approval.
How can the sector adapt?
Bearing this prognosis in mind, the questions we should be asking right now are how we pivot as a sector and as a country in order to meet the travel needs of the future tourist. If we aren’t asking this question, then we are essentially asking the wrong questions.
Consider, for a moment, the long-haul nature of our tourism sector. Will travellers to South Africa, coming from far-flung countries like Germany, the US or Asia, be content to put up with all the inconvenience associated with air travel for just a two-week vacation. No, they’ll be here for a few months, potentially working from their temporary home, needing longer-term accommodation and requiring access to reliable and fast WiFi. This could present some terrific opportunities not only for those with Airbnb properties but also for those businesses offering services such as laundry and grocery delivery or curated experiences.
But the real gems in the tourism crown will increasingly be the regional and local traveller. And that means taking a long, hard look at pricing models – where both local and international travellers will be seeking value for money. Certainly, in South Africa’s case, we also need to consider how best to attract tourists from our fellow African countries.
As someone who is used to travel, I freely admit that the shifts I see unfolding in this key sector will be a hard loss in the short term. Yes, travel will become much more expensive in the future, but I believe this will amplify the value and attractiveness of travel moments and encounters. Tourists will be prepared to dig deeply into their pockets if the offering is worth it.
Unless South Africa can collectively rethink its travel offering to the world, we stand to lose out on both those ‘deep pockets’ and the emerging domestic market. We must tread carefully and strategically at this critical juncture, as we reimagine the future.
Written by Abdullah Verachia
• Verachia is CEO of The Strategists and on the faculty of the Gordon Institute of Business Science.
Posted in Business Day, 15 September 2020 – 19:20