In a country blessed with an embarrassment of natural riches, tourism is regarded as an “easy” economic multiplier; a business that can create employment opportunities relatively quickly. But Covid whacked the hospitality industry. We spoke to a host of experts about tourism priorities. These reports by Jonathan Erasmus, Lyse Comins, Matthew Hattingh and Shirley le Guern.
The brains trust of the King Shaka International Airport (KSIA) is set on positioning the precinct as a viable alternative to other international airports in the country, in an effort to “foster global connectivity” and increase the province’s standing as a gateway to Africa.
While still operating at below pre-pandemic levels, between April and June 2022, 20 033 passengers arrived from international destinations, according to Thulisile Galelekile, the co-chair of the Route Development Committee.
She said the airport had a total of 338 international flights that either landed or departed over the same three-month period. Over and above the big three airlines – Emirates, Turkish Airlines and Qatar Airways – there were regular flights to Harare, with more on the way, said Galelekile.
“Currently Airlink operates between Harare and Durban. This was launched in April and flies four times a week. The team is also in negotiation with Swazi Airline for the Swaziland/Durban route given the number of tourists into KZN from Swaziland. This is still pending necessary approvals.”
The Route Development Committee was established by the KwaZulu-Natal Provincial Government in 2019 and comprises officials from Tourism KZN, Dube TradePort, the Airports Company South Africa, Trade & Investment KZN, Durban Tourism, Invest Durban and the Ilembe Development Agency.
“Given the strategic role played by KSIA in strengthening the South Africa value proposition, KZN is planning to develop this airport into an alternate aviation hub that will foster global connectivity of the KwaZulu-Natal region. This is [signifi cant] given the strategic location of KZN with the two ports [of Durban and Richards Bay] that will help in terms of strengthening our positioning as a gateway to Africa,” said Galelekile.
The team was “deliberate” in driving the positioning, she said, and that KSIA should not simply be considered a secondary aviation hub, but a viable alternative.
“The team plans to further leverage Dube TradePort Special Economic Zone and the aerotropolis to position the airport as an engine for industrial development in the KZN region and a global investment, tourism, trade and aviation hub. A key and critical component of the strategic intent is the air connectivity.
“As a consequence of such, ACSA is part of Durban Direct, a multi-entity committee whose task is to drive and co-ordinate the promotion of air services into King Shaka International Airport.
“As a consequence of such, ACSA is part of Durban Direct, a multi-entity committee whose task is to drive and co-ordinate the promotion of air services into King Shaka International Airport. The strategy has proven to be a viable one for the province, as evident in the strides made by the province – prior to Covid-19 – in getting more airlines to fly into KSIA.
“Post-Covid, we are starting to see the numbers come back and the team will continue to work together to ensure more airlines fly into the province,” said Galelekile.
Nkosinathi Myataza, Airports Company South Africa (ACSA) regional general manager for KwaZulu-Natal, said it was the multi-entity approach that led to the success of bringing the likes of British Airways direct flights from London Heathrow to KSIA.
While British Airways has since withdrawn due to the Covid-19 pandemic-induced lockdowns, Myataza said they are currently investing in marketing in the United Kingdom in order to “accelerate the recovery of air travel demand” from the UK.
“British Airways will likely return to KSIA,” said Myataza.
In August, Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) published its findings on tourism and migration for the month of June. The data was collected by the Department of Home Affairs at the country’s ports of entry and exit.
Stats SA said that 399 550 international tourists who spent one or more nights in South Africa, passed through the country’s various ports of entry. Of this number, 115 615 arrived by air. It said that KSIA was the third biggest airport in terms of international passenger arrivals. The report further said that the majority of tourists arriving at the airport were from Europe and Asia. The two largest nationality groups were from the United Kingdom and India.
Myataza said the impact of Covid-19 to “our industry was devastating”, but that it also “propelled ACSA to ensure sustainability of the business and become increasingly agile”.
“We embarked on a recover and sustain strategy, coupled with a revision of the company’s governance framework and operating model. Sadly, our recovery efforts were further disrupted by the fatal fl oods, and while we as an airport experienced minor damage to our infrastructure and operations, the impact to our province of which we form a critical component to, was detrimental. Together with our tourism trade partners and government entities, we have made inroads in our robust efforts to rebuilding our region as a destination of choice for both leisure and business travel.”
According to Emirates Southern Africa’s regional manager, Afzal Parambil, Emirates operates five flights to and from KSIA every week.
“With Emirates’ five weekly flights, we are still not operating at pre-pandemic levels. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, we operated daily flights to and from KSIA. However, we are currently operating at 70% of those levels. As travel demand continues to take shape, we will continue to review our network operations and will adjust our flying schedules to respond accordingly, taking into consideration other operational factors. Globally, Emirates has resumed passenger services to over 130 destinations, recovering close to 90% of our pre-pandemic network,” said Parambil.
He said that travel demand had been “consistently high throughout this year to compensate for the lack of travel in the last two years”.
“Furthermore, we continue to see surges of traffic during peak seasons for KZN travellers, including the European summer holidays as well as religious holidays. We hope to reinstate our full flying schedule of daily flights as soon as commercial and operating conditions allow. We want to continue maintaining healthy loads and traffic to and from KSIA to ensure we can rebuild our operations fully to Durban.”
According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA) a key factor affecting the aviation sector is the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, which is driving up the cost of jet fuel and therefore ticket prices.
“For airlines, the increase in jet fuel prices represents a major challenge as this cost typically accounts for 20-25% of total operational costs. The jet fuel price rose by more than 70% during the first six months of 2022, marking one of the steepest increases since at least 2002, and causing unprecedented pressure in terms of cost management for the airline industry,” said the IATA.
However, the IATA is also bullish on demand, buoyed by the reduction in Covid-19 travel restrictions. It also noted that in June, international air traffi c between Africa and Europe and the Middle-East were close to pre-pandemic levels.
Get the basics right
Duncan Heafield: National spokesman, Hospitality, Entertainment, Leisure Industries Association of SA
Visitors will return in numbers; consumer confidence is bound to bounce back. But there are no quick fixes. It will take time and effort and we must get the basics right.
That’s the cautiously optimistic view of Duncan Heafield, national spokesman for the Hospitality, Entertainment, Leisure Industries Association of SA.
Heafield, who is also the owner of the popular Bellézar Beach Cafe on the uMhlanga promenade, mentioned a recent meme – KZNilience – to sum up the general mood.
“We have shown we have the resilience to get through the most arduous times,” he said, adding that the series of storms – natural and otherwise – that KZN has weathered in recent years reminded us of the value of working together.
Infrastructure was severely depleted – and bridges, roads, beaches and other basics must be put right if we are to make ourselves attractive to visitors and investors.
“We need public-private partnerships to repair structures. Before Covid, we were reporting potholes. We’ve now realised if we don’t fix it ourselves we won’t have roads at all,” he said, adding it was “great that communities are rallying together.”
Tourism was not isolated from the wider world and Heafi eld called on owners and operators to get involved in civic matters – “what’s needed in their specific community related to their industry”.
“In uMhlanga you have a lagoon that doesn’t have fish,” he said, referring to the UPL chemical spill during the looting and subsequent contamination of the beaches.
“When beaches are closed, how can anyone trade?” Assisting communities builds huge support, he said, “that spirit of ubuntu is desperately needed at the moment.”
The tourism industry must continue to build the domestic market, he said, suggesting the international market and five-star establishments would take longer to recover.
If made tourism minister, Heafi eld would fix the ministry’s “very bad” communication, including the way it makes policy without talking to those affected by it.
Roads, water and safety
Brett Tungay: KZN chairperson, Federated Hospitality Association of South Africa
“Our roads are in a shocking state, especially in rural areas like the Drakensberg. The road from Oliviershoek Pass – the R74 to Bergville and Winterton – which is the alternative route into the province if Van Reenen’s Pass is blocked, is in a terrible condition. The contractor who attempted to fix it did a poor job and all the tar is pulling off the road. The road is now closed to heavy vehicles because of safety concerns.
“The other big issue is water. The quality of our water at Durban beaches needs to be sorted out. There are constantly reports of high levels of E.coli which does not help us to attract tourists. Surfers and paddlers have complained that they have got sick after being in the water. There are also problems of erratic or no water supply in some parts of the province such as the KZN South Coast which the government needs to urgently resolve.
“Tourists also need to feel safe when walking around so we really need to look at improving our safety and security in key areas frequented by tourists, especially when it comes to crimes such as mugging.”
Focus on three pillars
Sadha Naidoo: CEO, Calypso Group
“The growth of tourism in KZN requires a strong focus on the three pillars as defined in the Tourism Sector Recovery Plan – protecting and rejuvenating supply, reigniting demand, and strengthening enabling capability for long-term sustainability. Critical and relevant in our province would be growing the MICE market (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions), domestic tourism and embracing new travel trends, for example, ‘staycations’, ‘bleisure’ and tech-empowered travel. A co-ordinated and integrated approach will ensure we restore our tourism sector.”
Government incentives needed
Mel Ntombela: Inanda, Ntuzuma and KwaMashu Community Tourism Organisation
Tax breaks, rates reductions and other government incentives and support are needed to help KZN tourism find its feet, says Mel Ntombela.
Ntombela, who chairs the Inanda, Ntuzuma and KwaMashu Community Tourism Organisation, said they had lost nearly half their members since 2019.
Members – now numbering about 35 – were mainly owners of accommodation establishments, tour operators and guides. They have long counted on visitor interest in the area’s cultural and historical landmarks, notably the Gandhi settlement, Inanda Seminary and Ohlange Institute. But Covid kept tourists away and they have been slow to return.
The owner of a travel business himself, Ntombela reckons full recovery may take two to three years and will require sustained marketing, directed at individuals, operators and agents. He pointed out that people typically take six months to plan a holiday, so industry bodies, businesses and the government must get the message out that: “We are still here. We are still a destination of choice. We are ready for business.”
Rebuilding confidence in KZN and whetting the travelling public’s appetite for its many charms was only part of the answer, though. Ensuring affordability was vital too.
Ntombela pointed out that the economic climate remained chilly. Domestic tourists were cash-strapped, while soaring airfares were keeping foreign visitors away.
Oil price shocks which had driven up travel costs were the consequence of distant events, beyond the sway of the government. However, the authorities could play a direct role in making KZN more affordable by assisting businesses.
“The government really needs to come in big,” he said, “we are looking at things like tax breaks and incentives. We need to look at (municipal) rates; government should assist businesses to reduce their prices for tourism. People don’t have a lot of money to travel, so we need to be offering good prices.”
New tourism developments
Mpho Mbuli: General manager of marketing, Tourism KwaZulu-Natal
“Now that the world is fully open and the tourism sector is back in full force we are focusing our efforts on regaining our international markets. We would like to get our international arrivals, especially from key source markets, back to where we were pre-Covid 19.
“We have also learnt a lot about our domestic market over the past two years. We want to ensure that locals continue to be excited to travel domestically and for KZN to remain a firm favourite for the domestic market. We want to keep diversifying our tourism offerings, so we continue to work closely with members of the tourism trade and government to get new tourism developments, especially in townships and rural areas. This will ensure the economic benefits are spread.”
Growing our portfolio
Clinton Armour: CEO and founder, ANEW Hotels & Resorts
There are investment opportunities in the tourism sector. There’s a lot of stock out there, so I don’t think new builds are a good thing – but I think that investing in our current infrastructure is. We are constantly refurbishing and I think that is what will set us apart from our competitors. We have a long-term view of the country, so we are already doing little things while others are waiting.
”ANEW, which manages properties in Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga, Western Cape and North-West province, grew its business from four properties to 14 during the pandemic – and Armour says they are shopping for a property in Durban/uMhlanga to add to their portfolio.
The KZN North Coast has performed well and was already gaining momentum with the international market before Covid hit. It will continue on this trajectory once the market normalises.
Overall, Armour says KZN has out-performed the rest of the country as it remains the largest domestic tourism market.
Despite economic turbulence and petrol price hikes, he is confident the middle to upper segment of the domestic market will still travel this year with many having saved for festive season getaways.
Already, small numbers of international tourists are returning – a trend that will gather momentum towards the end of the year.
As travel begins to stabilise during 2023, he is confident the local tourism sector will begin to return to pre-Covid levels. Groups will be smaller and overseas visitors will do more bookings, making a social media presence important. At the same time, tour operators and travel agents are rebuilding their businesses and it will be important to build new relationships.
Linger longer in iLembe
Linda Mncube: Chief executive, Enterprise iLembe
The April floods walloped the iLembe District Municipality, knocking out infrastructure, including water supplies to areas around the popular seaside town of Ballito.
There’s never a good time for a disaster, but coming as it did on the eve of the Easter weekend was especially unfortunate. Visitors stayed away in numbers, compounding tourism industry Covid lockdown losses and a lingering hangover from last July’s looting.
Water supplies were soon restored, but bad news travels quickly while the good variety takes time to catch up.
Linda Mncube, chief executive of the municipality’s economic development arm, Enterprise iLembe, said reassuring would-be visitors was central to efforts to bolster tourism in the district.
“We are ramping up our activities to get the message out that the area is attractive to tourism and investment. We are open for business and visitors,” he said.
Mncube said they were spreading the word, including by sharing marketing platforms with partners such as Tourism KZN.
He said messaging to domestic and international tourists sought to reassure them “in terms of safety and security”.
While winning hearts and minds through marketing was important, Mncube said repairing infrastructure, especially roads, was crucial.
Maintaining infrastructure around the area’s beaches – “our main attractions” – was vital to recovery too, he said.
Beyond this, Enterprise iLembe was working with local municipalities to develop new attractions and products to spread the benefit of tourism to areas that previously had not benefitted. Here he mentioned work, still at the planning stage, to develop the hot springs in Maphumulo, on the Tugela River.
Such attractions would have the added benefit of giving visitors more to do, encouraging them to linger longer in iLembe.