The COVID-19 Cloud Had Silver Linings for SA’s Tourism Sector

The COVID-19 pandemic turned our world upside down, affecting people, businesses, and whole economies, with the signs of recovery only emerging in the last few months. While there’s no diminishing the tragedies and disasters of the last nearly three years, that upside downturn has been the catalyst for so much positive change – and loads of opportunity too.

“One of the most positive outcomes of global travel bans was that South Africans started rediscovering their own country,” says Michael Puffet, business development manager at Profitroom South Africa, and a hotelier himself. “The pandemic saw the rise of the ‘staycation’ – with people spending a night out at a hotel in their home city or choosing to spend their holiday budget on multiple shorter stays within an easy drive’s distance, rather than travelling abroad.

“Those staycations meant that so many hospitality destinations could survive the pandemic by welcoming guests, keeping their teams employed, and stimulating local economies when other sectors couldn’t.”

These shifting vacation choices by local people formed the foundation for the South African travel sector’s anticipated 7.6% per annum growth over the next ten years, further encouraged by the country’s currency value which makes it an enduringly popular destination among travellers from Europe and the United States.

Puffet adds that there are other ways that the pandemic shifted things for the better, within the hospitality sector and across broader society too:

While the business horizon looked bleak in mid-2020, many hotels and resorts chose to take advantage this quiet time to refurbish and upgrade their properties so that they were revitalized and ready to welcome guests for an improved experience once the pandemic was over. This wasn’t only a great idea for their own businesses – it kept construction and allied companies going through the tough times too.

In taking steps to meet pandemic-related safety requirements, many businesses – including those in tourism – had to invest more thought and care into their customers’ ‘user experience’. This care and thoughtful design have persisted, making many destinations even more luxurious than before.
The environment got to take a breather, with vegetation growing back, animals returning, and birds nesting in new locations too. This was great news for conservation tourism, as the teams on the ground could spend time learning more about the routines of the animals under their care, and how to balance their needs with visitors’ expectations.

While technology made it possible for office environments to shift online, the hospitality industry’s adoption of digital systems was accelerated too. This included everything from adopting direct booking platforms to scrapping paper menus in favour of QR codes that linked through to digital menus on guests’ mobile devices, for example. Online check-ins to reduce face to face contact took the pressure off reception staff, while food delivery services meant that hotels could close their kitchens earlier, giving their staff time off, while guests could order in food from nearby restaurants at any time, via food delivery apps.

The world was on high alert to prevent the spread of COVID-19, with health officials everywhere implementing protocols to protect people. While many restrictions were onerous, and some even nonsensical, we did learn what works, and how to respond quickly when something does go wrong. That can only be good news for the future, as tourism and other industries build on the knowledge gained over the last three years, to navigate through any future health or other emergency incidents effectively.

“The pandemic brought that iconic South African innovation to the fore, with many premium destinations that previously targeted the international market, offering discounted rates to local travellers,” Puffet says. “This strategy also contributed to these venues’ sustainability, and it would be ideal if they could continue with this strategy as they return to historic pricing models. This would further encourage South Africans to travel their own country more and would be a wonderful way to show appreciation for local travellers who chose to travel locally rather than going abroad.

“One way for local travellers to reciprocate this kindness is by booking directly with destinations, rather than via international online travel agencies, which take a significant commission, impacting sustainability and driving prices up,” Puffet explains.

Destinations that have partnered with Profitroom have tripled their revenue through a direct bookings strategy, adding impetus to job creation in the sector, which adds one new role for every 30 new tourists,” he adds.

“The travel and tourism industries are major contributors to the economy, driving growth, creating jobs, and fostering development – now even more so than pre-pandemic,” he concludes.

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