Endowed with rolling vineyards, bountiful game play, iconic Table Mountain, endless sandy beaches and vast cultural treasures, South Africa will be looking to profit from the post-virus travel boom.
But a week of rioting and looting risked deterring foreign visitors and hammering hopes of a recovery, the industry said, adding to the losses caused by the country’s rising coronavirus toll.
Tracey Hellerle of the Umzolozolo cottage near Ladysmith in KwaZulu-Natal province, which is the epicenter of the chaos, said any visitors booked to stay during the week of unrest had been cancelled.
Prior to Covid-19, visitors from around the world — and during the pandemic, from across the country — would sit on poolside sun loungers overlooking the undulating plains of the Nambiti nature reserve, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Big Five’s game.
“We’re just starting to get back into the swing,” Hellerle said, noting that the drop in orders due to the pandemic had led to layoffs.
“People are too scared to travel (and) because of the riots they closed the N3 (highway), which has become like a war zone and people are too scared to get in their vehicles to travel.”
Since looting and rioting erupted on July 9, 212 people have died, 180 of whom have lost their lives in KwaZulu-Natal.
Tourism is a mainstay of South Africa’s economy, which was struggling even before Covid-19 and the unrest.
The industry contributed 355 billion rand ($24.6 billion, 21 billion euros) to the economy in 2019 — seven percent of GDP — and employs 759,900 people, according to official statistics.
In Clarens, a picturesque tourist town nestled in the foothills of the Maluti mountains that is a popular weekend getaway five hours by car from Durban, guesthouse owner Heinrich Pelser fears foreign tourists could be deterred by the unrest.
“If you look at Canadians and Americans, I don’t think they’re coming soon,” he said.
Since the riots began, Pelser’s Stonehaven lodges have accommodated drivers departing from riot-hit Durban, as well as a man en route to town to bring food to his mother, he said.
Under coronavirus restrictions, the sale of alcohol is banned nationwide – a special blow for Clarens, known for its microbreweries, and for the Western Cape province known for its wineries, as well as being the endpoint of the prestigious Blue Train.
“There’s no point in coming here if you can’t taste cheese, wine, beer,” said Pelser, who employs six full-time staff.
In Cape Town, the capital of the Western Cape and a popular stop for cruises, tourist-oriented businesses say the lack of boat visits has hurt them.
“It’s very slow. Previously we had a lot of cruise ship passengers. We’re just waiting to see if this vaccine means they can come back,” said the manager of the Wild Thing Africa gift shop at Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront.
“Now we don’t want (violence) to come here,” he said, giving only his name as Simone.
Nearby, nearly all South African passengers disembarked from a red double-decker Cape Town tour bus parked beside the city’s Two Oceans Aquarium.
“I feel very safe, that’s normal here. The coronavirus containment is easier than I expected,” said a passenger who gave his name only as Brian, visiting his South African girlfriend.
‘Safe to come’?
Another blow to Durban’s tourist attraction, officials have closed several beaches north of the city, which are usually popular with visitors both local and foreign, for fear of chemical contamination following industrial arson nearby.
Zanele Khomo, chief growth officer at the Durban Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said the events had “devastated” the city’s tourism economy.
“From a tourism perspective, it will harm us as a country,” he added.
The devastation of looting has been broadcast around the world, as has fake news about attacks on tourist areas.
“Once the unrest subsides, South Africa is so popular and so safe to come, people will definitely travel,” said Hellerle of the Umzolozolo lodge, noting that several cottages in KwaZulu-Natal have been empty since March 2020.
“It’s hoping and praying.”