Africa’s tourism sector is on the up again

Africa’s tourism industry has all but disappeared during the pandemic, but now travelers are returning to the continent.

The Grand Daddy Hotel in central Cape Town, South Africa bustles with activity. Guests check in at reception, there’s a gin tasting on the second floor, while cocktails are served on the rooftop terrace. Manager Dane van Heteren has one word to describe how he feels about all the activity: “Finally.” During the pandemic, the small hotel had to close temporarily; Employees were laid off and salaries cut. Now, he says, things are finally looking up. Before the pandemic, occupancy was regularly over 80 percent. In February, van Heteren was happy to have reached the 50 percent mark again.

For months downtown felt like a ghost town — but not anymore. Tourists are strolling the streets again, new restaurants have opened. Rush-hour traffic jams are back, too. In April 2022, 74 percent more international tourists came to the city than in April 2019, before the pandemic began, according to the Cape Town Tourism Authority. Many airlines that reduced flights during the pandemic are now adding deals.

Positive trends outside of South Africa

Elcia Grandcourt, Africa Regional Director of the UN World Tourism Organization, recently attended Africa’s largest travel fair in Durban and received a lot of positive feedback from tour operators. The UN World Tourism Barometer, as of January 2022, shows a 51 percent increase in international tourist arrivals in Africa compared to the previous year. Many countries are now benefiting from advertising campaigns that took place during the pandemic, says Grandcourt. Destinations such as Kenya, Morocco, Tunisia, Cape Verde and Mauritius have managed to remain coveted destinations. In addition, travel between the countries of the continent has become more important. More and more Africans are spending their holidays on the continent.

“But there are new concerns. The Russian military offensive in Ukraine and the resulting economic impact will also affect the travel industry,” Grandcourt explains, adding that the industry will not recover as quickly as many had hoped. Some countries still have travel restrictions in place and the rules are constantly changing.

It’s complicated

Tourist Jane Berky from the US was struck by some of the changes brought on by the pandemic during a recent trip to the Republic of Congo. She originally planned her trip to the gorillas in the north of the country two years ago, but had to postpone it because of the pandemic. When the lead was finally possible again, it failed at the last minute. She was unable to board the flight she had originally booked because the transit rules in Kenya, a stopover on her journey, had changed spontaneously. She had to rebook her flight. “This is the world we live in now,” says Berky. “You can sit at home and let everything pass you by. Or you can travel and make the most of it. Would it be better without these limitations? Of course it would. But wouldn’t that make me travel? Of course not.”

Berky was happy to see a group of gorillas in the jungle – from a distance and with an FFP2 mask. And Raphael de Laage de Meux is happy to finally have guests like Berky again. He works for the Congo Conservation Company, which funds its conservation projects with ecotourism for wealthy travelers. Guests pay more than $10,000 (€9,600) to visit. “The tourists bring income to the people here,” he says. “99 percent of our employees come from the village. The national park also creates added value for them. They see that protecting the park also brings them income.” There have been no tourists in the region for over a year.

Discounts and short-term bookings

Back in Cape Town. Despite the increasing number of guests, hotel manager Dane van Heteren still has to offer significantly reduced rates in order to attract enough guests to the hotel. “Unfortunately, people don’t book as far in advance as they did before COVID,” says van Heteren. “We are getting more and more last-minute bookings. That is both a curse and a blessing.”

He hopes normality will return when the next peak season begins later this year. The South African winter is about to begin, and few travelers head to Cape Town then. At the same time, COVID infection numbers are currently rising again, with a fifth wave beginning in South Africa. And even if virologists are still giving the all-clear because of the low number of hospital admissions, Dane van Heteren has learned to be cautiously optimistic in recent months. “During the first wave, we said: This will never happen again. And then came waves two and three and we learned our lesson.”

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