'Bite the bullet now': Coronavirus a reality check, warns head of SA Tourism

The South African tourism industry is now facing the reality of the impact of measures deployed in the country to deal with the coronavirus pandemic and the industry is organising itself to consolidate its views and communicate on a consistent daily basis to provide guidelines, Sisa Ntshona, CEO of SA Tourism told Fin24.

He said SAT has essentially turned its official website into an information hub where people can find answers to frequently asked questions.

Bite the bullet now

"My attitude is safety first. It would not be good to take short-term decisions which would have had long-term consequences like what happened in Italy. We must rather bite the bullet now," he said.

"We are going to bleed heavily and already many events have been cancelled, impacting the tourism industry even further. We will look closely at the impact to try and quantify it."

The Association of Southern African Travel Agents (ASATA) has called for calm as the travel industry faces an unprecedented crisis following the travel restrictions imposed by the government.

"In what can be described as one of the biggest crises the South African travel industry has ever experienced, it is crucial for calm to prevail at this time. We call for a close cooperation between the industry and the government and encourage strong inter-governmental cooperation to minimise the impact on the travel and tourism industry," says ASATA CEO Otto de Vries. 

South Africa's tourism industry is ready to play its part to make sure those throughout the value chain protect staff and tourists alike, Tshifhiwa Tshivhengwa, CEO of the Tourism Business Council of SA (TBCSA), told Fin24 on Monday.

He commented on President Cyril Ramaphosa declaring a national state of disaster on Sunday evening following the outbreak of the coronavirus in South Africa.

Tshivhengwa points out that 1.5 million people are employed in SA's tourism industry. "As the tourism industry, we welcome the president's announcements and we believe it will go a long way to contain the virus. We are all in it together," said Tshivhengwa.

"Yes, it will impact the tourism industry, but this is a time calling for extraordinary measures. We will be part of the solution and ensure we protect our employees and guests."

'We know how important this is'

He said such measures taken could include following hygiene guidelines and protocols when someone is suspected of having the virus.

"We will follow whatever the Department of Health advises us to do as an industry. We know how very important this is. As an industry we realise that if we can contain the virus now, we should be able to come back to the market even stronger when the crisis is over," he said.

"One of the biggest things we must think of now is about our post corona interventions. Every other country will be marketing itself too so we must look at things like introducing e-visas to make it easier for visitors to come here. We must ensure our marketing strategy is ready and we are friendly to businesses."

Tshivhengwa emphasised that the tourism industry is very important for SA and it was - even before the coronavirus pandemic - already facing challenges due to cancellations and fewer forward bookings.

Even before the Coronavirus started to impact the industry this year, it became clear the it is facing challenges. SA received 244 000 fewer inbound tourists in 2019 in comparison to the year before, according to StatsSA. This is only the second time in nearly a decade that the country has experienced an annual decline in the number of foreign tourists - the previous one having been during the Ebola pandemic coupled with the unabridged birth certificate "misjudgement" in 2015, according to Jabulani Debedu, a senior consultant at the Tourism Specialist Unit of professional services firm BDO.

"The concern now is, therefore, that the inbound tourist decline in 2019 was pre-coronavirus outbreak, leaving a question mark about how busy international passport control will be at major SA airports and ports of entry in 2020," says Debedu.

Lee-Anne Bac, director of the Tourism Specialist Unit at BDO, adds that it is still too early to have any statistics on what the impact of the coronavirus pandemic will be on the local travel industry.

"The current and anticipated decline in international arrivals to SA is unknown, but it will have a significant impact on our tourism industry. In terms of domestic tourism, anecdotally we are starting to see declines in local travel as people are opting to delay their travel until the risk is over or significantly reduced," she said. 

Recovery

She added that the "good news" is that tourism is extremely resilient.

"Leisure travellers will just delay their leisure trip until the risk is over. However, many of the business trips and conferences that were cancelled are unlikely to take place at another time, so these trips and the resulting economic impact are not recoverable," she said. 

She foresees the biggest challenge lies with the industry being able to sustain operations through these extremely trying times. Not knowing what the future looks like and how long the pandemic is going to go on for, adds to these sustainability woes.

In the meantime, as part of preventative measures to curb the spreading of the coronavirus, staff at South African Airways (SAA) who are able to work from home and whose jobs do not require them to be present on site, have been requested in an internal memo to do so, while the Airports Company of South Africa and other industry members have also ramped up measures to curb the spread of the virus.