Tourism can trump COVID-19

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Tourism is no longer the low-hanging fruit for Southern African economies.

The region can thank the global COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the UN World Tourism Organisation, the cost of COVID-19 to global tourism already far exceeds that of the 2009 economic crisis.

The latest UNWTO World Tourism Barometer shows that the near-universal lockdown imposed in response to the pandemic led to a 98 percent fall in international tourist numbers in May when compared to 2019. 

The barometer also shows a 56 percent year-on-year drop in tourist arrivals between January and May. This translates into 300 million less tourists and US$320 billion less revenue - more than three times the loss during the 2009 economic crisis. 

Nonetheless, research institute Future Directions International holds out hope that the tourism sector will be a key pillar for Southern Africa’s recovery, particularly through rejuvenation of the SADC Secretariat’s Tourism Unit and/or the Regional Tourism Organisation of Southern Africa (RETOSA).

In a report titled “Tourism as an Agent of Recovery in Post-COVID-19 Southern Africa,” the institute states that during the period when it was adequately funded, RETOSA played a major role in attracting international visitors to Southern Africa.

“With funding restored, either RETOSA or the SADC Secretariat’s Tourism Unit could be an ideal vehicle for working with member governments, airlines, accommodation providers, tour operators and local industry representatives to craft marketing strategies for visitors from suitably low-risk countries to individual SADC countries, or one or more sub-regional groupings; for instance, a South African or Botswanan safari in combination with a visit to Victoria Falls, the deserts of Namibia, or further afield to one or more of the Indian Ocean islands,”the report states.

Researchers at Future Directions International said because of its massive tourism sector and due to the transport hubs provided by the airports in Johannesburg and Cape Town, South Africa could best lead a co-ordinated marketing initiative for the region.

“Attractions worthy of promotion would include its safari, cultural, historical, culinary, viticultural, trekking and adventure offerings, all of which could be used to entice travellers to explore just a little further afield in, say, the wilderness and wildlife of Eswatini, Lesotho, Zambia or Zimbabwe, not to mention the beaches and islands of Mozambique,”the report says.

Funding for the initiative could be raised by having a SADC levy on tourists’ accommodation.

“With appropriate planning, the amount involved need not be large, perhaps ranging from between US$1 and US$2 per person per night, depending upon the type and location of the accommodation,” the report suggests.

Future Directions International adds: “The travel and tourism industry cannot offer an across-the-board panacea but, with suitable marketing and measures taken to address potential challenges, it can offer the hope of an economic lifeline.”

And as several countries in the region begin to reopen their borders to international visitors, some experts have opined that towns that have traditionally hinged economic activity on tourism alone now need to start diversifying in a sustainable way.

For instance, they point out, the towns of Kasane (Botswana), Livingstone (Zambia) and Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe) do not have any manufacturing or horticulture to speak of and have to purchase the most basic of commodities from major cities that are a minimum of 400km away.

This lack of economic diversification has meant these towns have borne the brunt of the new coronavirus-induced lockdown as they have little else besides tourism to sustain themselves.

Reporting by Mpho Tebele in Gaborone & Masimba Gomo in Harare

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