• New horizon

    The focus of South Africa’s COVID-impacted tourism industry is shifting to more authentic and conscious travel

    New horizon

    After two years cooped up indoors, restricted by masks and social distancing, with hands desiccated by sanitiser, humans are longing for wilderness, for adventure and for greater meaning – in the form of sustainability and empowerment – in their travel choices. At least, that is the view of the global tourism industry, where the adventure tourism market is estimated to generate almost US$1.169 trillion by 2028.

    It’s no secret (or surprise) that foreign arrivals in South Africa dropped by 71% in 2020 – contributing to an estimated ZAR164 billion loss in spending by domestic and inbound visitors – and that hopes for something approximating a revival were dashed when lockdowns and international travel bans were instigated again during peak season in 2021, thanks to the upsurge in COVID-19 Omicron variant infections.

    According to the Tourism Business Council of South Africa, overall, the sector is operating at between 30% and 40% capacity compared to 2019. Just 37% of employees in the tourism sector were receiving 100% of their salaries in February 2022. International arrivals are showing a slow increase from a low base. In addition, the liquidation of Comair removed roughly 40% of South Africa’s domestic air capacity.

    Despite these challenges, there is a palpable sense of optimism and zeal in the industry, which is refocusing its energies on eco and adventure tourism in light of changing, post-pandemic trends. From big five safaris to abseiling down Table Mountain, shark diving, surfing, hiking coastal trails or exploring the other-worldly Cango Caves (to mention only a handful), South Africa has a lot to offer the nature-loving, adrenaline-seeking tourist. And in a post-pandemic world, that’s exactly the kind of tourist the country is likely to see more of.

    The Southern Africa Tourism Services Association (SATSA), a non-profit, member-driven group representing more than 1 300 companies in all facets of the inbound travel sector, is throwing its weight behind the promise of adventure tourism by embarking on a structured process aimed at developing a voluntary self-accreditation programme. ‘SATSA’s adventure tourism chapter already comprises 121 businesses representing all provinces and adventure types,’ says Andre du Toit, SATSA adventure chapter chair.

    ‘Chapter members will play a significant role in informing the self-regulatory framework devised by working groups, as well as participate in a community to network and grow the country’s adventure-tourism industry and create awareness of South Africa’s adventure-tourism value proposition and credibility.’

    Closely aligned with eco-tourism, adventure tourism offers a strong growth opportunity, where post-pandemic national imperatives include transformation in rural areas, job creation, geographic spread and the development of sustainable tourism products; not least because of the country’s rich assets, excellent climate and the already extensive array of adventure experiences on offer. ‘Tourism is recovering fairly well in South Africa,’ adds Du Toit. ‘Initial pent-up demand is definitely fuelling momentum for travel in the short term, but it would be wise to expect a levelling off during 2023. Eco-tourism is certainly enjoying its share of this spend as travellers yearn for connection with nature and the outdoors after months of video calls and working from home. This is the case with adventure tourism as well, with a market segment that is generally more resilient and willing to travel for their desired experience.

    With its natural beauty and outdoor lifestyle, South Africa is well placed to make the most of the growing post-pandemic trend of adventure tourism

    ‘There has also been a move to support local and small business with travellers increasingly seeking to spend their travel buck on experiences that directly benefit the environment and communities they encounter on their travels. This bodes well for the adventure-tourism sector, which is dominated by small, locally focused owner-run businesses that speak to so much of what today’s conscious and responsible traveller is looking for.’

    According to Du Toit, the term ‘eco-tourism’ is becoming somewhat anachronistic, superseded by the term ‘regenerative travel’, which encompasses responsibilities beyond basic sustainability practices – possibly in response to greater consumer cynicism around ‘green-washing’, where companies make unsubstantiated or false claims about sustainability and environmental benefits.

    Marketed as the sweet spot ‘where your vacation meets your values’, the shift reflects a broader prioritisation of purpose and a desire to connect more deeply and respectfully with the natural world.

    ‘There is a meaningful drive to leave an environment or community in a better position, to help regenerate wilderness landscapes and uplift under-represented groups, bringing sustainable value to both. It is the more conscious traveller who is now reading between the lines and demanding more transparency and authenticity. SA has the opportunity to play a leadership role in this “movement”.’

    Singita – which operates game lodges in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Rwanda – is arguably at the forefront of both adventure and regenerative travel in Southern Africa. Its business and conservation projections take 20-, 50- and 100-year horizons into account, and encompass the tenets of the theme, namely prosperity for the local community and environmental regeneration.

    ‘The safari industry is recovering well,’ says Singita chief strategist Lindy Rousseau. ‘At Singita, we can witness all the pent-up demand we have been discussing for ages. Travellers want to take their once-in-a-lifetime bucket-list trips and yearn to be close to nature to recharge and travel with purpose. This is welcome news for conservation in Africa, as eco-tourism is the vehicle to help fund critical projects that safeguard wildlife, wilderness areas and people.’

    She describes the pandemic as an opportunity for the company to refine and edit its guest experience, identifying what guests will value most – less overt consumerism, combined with the need to ramp up sustainability practices; a desire to simplify life, and an abhorrence of any form of wastage; an intensified focus on health and well-being, and the perception of nature as a healer.

    Singita has a number of conservation partnerships that should prove attractive to this new breed of traveller. ‘In South Africa, the Singita Lowveld Trust manages a wide range of conservation projects in the Greater Kruger National Park, from anti-poaching initiatives to wildlife research and land management, sustainability efforts and community partnership projects such as early childhood development, digital learning and a world-class culinary school,’ says Rousseau. ‘One of our newer partnerships is with Endangered Wildlife Trust/Birdlife SA for vultures.’

    The company has also partnered with conservation funds and trusts in Tanzania and Zimbabwe, and, together with the Lowveld Trust, it implements strategic conservation projects in each of the regions in which it operates. ‘Our 100-year purpose is to preserve and protect large areas of African wilderness for future generations. We are committed to helping recover critically endangered species and ecosystems, ensure no further extinction, benefit neighbouring communities, and contribute positively to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions through longterm climate commitments.’

    While still focused on inbound tourism, South African National Parks (SANParks) – the SOE tasked with managing South Africa’s national parks – has had a ‘newfound realisation and appreciation of the importance of the domestic market’, and intensified efforts to attract new segments of local holidaymakers. According to Gabrielle Venter, SANParks media and stakeholder relations manager, the pandemic outlined exciting opportunities in the adventure-tourism realm that could be pursued via online platforms, such as virtual game-drive experiences. ‘The likes of such products were featured in the SANParks Tourism Investment Conference in March 2022, and will be pursued depending on private-sector interest,’ she says.

    International arrivals to SANParks are still well below pre-pandemic levels, Venter adds, and though there are tentative signs of a return from this market, real proof of a return in numbers will only be evident when the next summer peak season arrives. ‘The South African domestic market remains crucially important to SANParks, though the local economy is under severe pressure.’

    A variety of ‘exciting’ partnerships were concluded at the 2022 Tourism Investment Conference, says Venter, such as Kruger Shalati – Train on the Bridge, luxury accommodation on a train permanently stationed on a bridge above the Sabie river.

    CapeNature, a government-owned entity responsible for managing and maintaining 31 nature reserves in the Western Cape, reported in March 2022 that eco-tourism earnings had grown by a record 60.5% compared to the previous financial year, surpassing its pre-COVID revenue target of 2019/20. That was attributed to a ‘strong focus on brand awareness and innovation’, and creative marketing and promotional campaigns (including the social media hashtag #NatureStaycation), with 99% of the visitors of domestic origin.

    The sector still faces significant challenges in returning to (and ideally surpassing) pre-COVID health. Yet, if current rates of recovery endure – and the prevailing trends towards adventure travel are capitalised on – it is well on its way to becoming a key player in the country’s economic recovery.

    By Robyn MacLarty
    Images: Gallo/Getty Images