The new normal in tourism is business unusual

When governments worldwide confined people to their homes, it was inevitable that the tourism industry would take a hit. But there have also been some new crazes and innovations, with the shifting priorities and new needs of tourists. Here are a few.

Living local and lekker

Afrika Mdolomba officially started his local travel business Travel with Afrika in March last year, months before Covid-19 even existed. When lockdown hit a year later, seven out of the nine trips already booked for the autumn season had to be canned.

“It was tough not travelling at all and being cooped up at home, especially for one who is used to being in different places so often,” the avid backpacker says.

A Travel with Afrika tour group enjoying the sunrise in Mpumalanga at Panorama Chalets & Rest Camp in Graskop

While lockdown was tough for the business too, Mdolomba started selling branded sweaters and hoodies to keep relevant, including a travel hoodie with printed icons that help to overcome language barriers.

“Many other travel companies were quiet, so I thought how can my company stay relevant without being annoying and constantly pushing travel when there is none,” he says.

His first official post-lockdown trip was to Magoebaskloof in Limpopo this past weekend, with ziplining, horse-riding, a canopy tour, and general fun. Mdolomba says it was different to before, as some places were still closed and social distancing had to be observed. He could only take a group of eight instead of the usual 10.

One big advantage for him, being focussed on the local tourism market, is that his business can start picking up again while many others are still waiting for the borders to reopen. Travel with Afrika is for young, working class locals “who have some spare income to spend on travelling” but might think tourism is too expensive for them to afford. He got the idea for the business when people asked him for tips on how they, too, could travel like him, “and then I realised people can actually pay me for this,” he says.

Only about 5% to10% of his customers are from outside South Africa, and most of these are from neighbouring countries, which means the reopening of South Africa’s borders to Africans should also work in his favour. “It’s not to say that foreign tourists are not welcome. I love the whole mix,” he says. For more information, check out or

Cheers to incentivising tourists

It wasn’t only tourism that dried up during lockdown in the Cape Winelands. One of the main industries — wine-making — took a hit too, as drinking was banned for a significant period.

One of the major towns in the region has come up with an initiative to help with the revival and the recovery of tourism in the region, and it is incentivising residents to be tourists locally.

“The Support Stellenbosch Restaurant Rewards Campaign rewards in-dining restaurant customers with a voucher that can be redeemed via SnapScan Wallet at any participating restaurant within the campaign period,” the local tourism authority, Visit Stellenbosch, explains on its website. For example, the customer will pay for a meal at a restaurant with SnapScan, and within 72 hours a voucher for 50% of the bill, to a maximum of R400, is loaded onto the SnapScan wallet of the customer. That voucher can then be redeemed at any other participating restaurants, wineries or accommodation establishments.

CEO Jeanneret Momberg says: “Support Stellenbosch has been created to inspire locals to support local and stimulate our town’s economy, and pave the way for its swift recovery. To that end, we are extending this solidarity to support our restaurants and tourism businesses that continue to be affected by the lockdown and resulting lack of patronage.”

There are also deals to be had on wine-blending, horse-riding through the vineyards, and wine-pairing experiences, as well as art walks and guided cycle tours. “This show of support among Stellenbosch accommodation, experiences and restaurants to revive the town’s tourism economy is an incredible example of what one town can do when it comes together behind the common goal of making it safe and easy for guests to visit,” Momberg says, adding that this is a first for South Africa.

The initiative is endorsed by the Stellenbosch Municipality, Stellenbosch University, Cape Winelands District Municipality and Wesgro.

Left: Eastern Cape Premier Oscar Mabuyane did his first bungee jump off the highest bungee-jumping bridge in the world, the Bloukrans in Tsitsikamma. He did it as part of government’s Tourism Month activities. “I was doing it for the people of the Eastern Cape, to show that we have got something special.” He did, however, admit that “it was a good experience”.

Don’t go mad – go wild

When Graham Wallington and his wife Emily started broadcasting wildlife safaris in 2007, they couldn’t have imagined that their initiative would end up helping scores of people cope with the strain of a pandemic.

“We saw a five-fold global increase in our traffic from March 2020 to April 2020,” Graham says. In South Africa, this increase was 15-fold, meaning that the South African portion of viewers increased from 5% to 33% of the total viewership. “For some reason in South Africa WildEarth just caught on,” he says, and the easing of lockdown hasn’t seen these numbers drop much.

WildEarth streams online for free, but their shows are also broadcast on SABC, DStv, and CTGN in China. Graham says many people who come to Africa to see wildlife know their shows, so indirectly it is also good advertising. One of their partners, Djuma Private Game Reserve, attracts a lot of local tourists due to the show, and the moment lockdown started relaxing in South Africa, visitors started flooding back in. The wildlife there have become celebrities in their own right. “It’s not just a leopard that people can see there, it is Thandi the leopard,” Graham says.

The benefit of virtual safaris will endure. It is low impact, meaning millions of people can watch the animals without the environment being destroyed.

WildEarth has six vehicles out at different game farms in South Africa and Kenya and employ about 40 people, most of whom are freelancers, but indirectly it’s also helped bring money into the pockets of game lodges.

Just as importantly, though, it’s kept many people sane during lockdown. “It was a true privilege to be able to, during that time when people are stuck at home and lonely and feeling detached and scared about an uncertain world, to be able to share nature,” he says. “People realise hey, there is nature, it is carrying on.” 

It helped break the cycle of bad news too.

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Feeling the summer love again

Just a year ago international business magazine Forbes called Durban the “new darling” of South Africa, where previously the honour of this title had belonged to Cape Town.

The magazine loved the city’s golden beaches, and the cultures and traditions of its diverse residents. The year-round warm weather, traditional cuisine, lively markets, world class hotels and revitalised arts district all contribute to the city’s reputation as a great tourist destination.

The city has, however, felt the brunt of the lockdown very harshly, and as it started to ease but tourism remained shut, a convoy of more than 60 vehicles drove from Westville Swimming Pool to Point to protest. The tourist companies felt that their efforts of presenting themselves as tourism-ready had come to nothing, as government wasn’t listening. Some tour guides have lost cars and houses because they couldn’t keep up payments.

Now that local tourism has re-opened and international travellers will be welcome again soon, Durban Tourism wants to talk about how the industry can help local communities develop.

To celebrate World Tourism Day, Durban Tourism will team up with an NGO, Project ENZA, to host a virtual dialogue. “The overall aim of the event is to show tourism’s role in supporting rural tourism businesses and showcasing them,” according to a statement. “Most importantly it is to inspire new, innovative ways to reignite domestic and international tourism post-Covid-19 and border openings.”

Long road ahead for tourism’s recovery

Tourism Month has coincided with the easing of South Africa’s tight and lengthy Covid-19 lockdown to allow domestic travel again, but the picture’s bleak. SA Tourism CEO Sisa Ntshona says it could take two to two-and-a-half years to get the industry back up to pre-Covid-19 levels of activity. “The recovery is going to be long. You can’t just assume that, with the flick of a switch, the borders will open and things will go back to normal again,” he says.

SA Tourism CEO Sisa Ntshona

New patterns have started emerging as government regulations permit local tourism again, since last month. While city centres are still suffering from a lack of business and government travel as well as conferences, tourism on the outskirts of towns has started picking up strongly.

“We have seen phenomenal numbers,” Ntshona says. “Just as the president announced that local tourism is allowed under the next level, the national parks booking site crashed. What we are seeing is that outdoor open spaces, bush, and beaches are very popular, as people are trying to express their freedom and still practise social distancing.”

This is also a boost to SA Tourism’s efforts to focus revival efforts on the rural areas and township tourism, to ensure more inclusivity. Thus far, government has had little budget to promote the re-opening of tourism, as it surrendered much of its budget before the lockdown to redirect money towards urgent measures to fight Covid-19. Ntshona says tourism authorities are hoping to get some of this money back, and they’re hoping to use it smartly. “As the world is opening up, we’re all competing for the same audience of tourism,” he says.

South Africa is opening its borders to selected countries for international travel, but for now, expectations are that there will only be a trickle of tourists from overseas. Different countries in the region have different criteria for incoming travellers. Some — including South Africa — require a negative Covid-19 test at least 72 hours before travel, while others require travellers to isolate for a number of days, and this could complicate travel a little, Ntshona says. — Carien du Plessis



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