When will the Americans come back?

Everywhere you go in South Africa these days, you hear the same thing: Covid-19 is over. South Africa is once again safe for tourism. But when are the Americans coming back?

The Americans disappeared in December after the omicron surge, and they have yet to return. The United States is the third largest foreign source of visitors to South Africa. Which countries send the most tourists to South Africa? The United Kingdom and Germany, followed by the United States, France, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

In 2019, just over 100,000 Americans visited South Africa. During the pandemic, the numbers fell into the thousands; then the bottom fell in 2021 and they completely stopped coming. Many governments halted flights to South Africa, hoping in vain that this would prevent the “South African variant”, later renamed omicron.

But calling it the South African variant was a bit unfair. Scientists have identified the variant in South Africa, but its origins remain a mystery. What’s less mysterious is what the variant did, besides infecting a lot of people. It basically stopped tourism in South Africa in its tracks.

“We’ve been through so much,” says Richard Keet, general manager of SunSquare Cape Town Gardens, a boutique hotel. “Now, finally, there are signs that visitors are coming back.”

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When will the Americans return to South Africa?

But when will American tourists finally return to South Africa? There is a simple answer and a complicated one.

The simple answer is: the safari season starts at the end of winter. There is a lull during the holidays, followed by a slight uptick at the beginning of the year. This means that the best scenario is that South Africa will have to wait a few more months before the Americans return.

The more complicated answer, however, is whether the destination has fallen out of favor with Americans. Did the 14 hour flight, security risks and jet lag all conspire to put South Africa on their ‘not to visit’ list?

I spoke with a flight attendant for United Airlines, which operates flights from Cape Town to Newark. She says her colleagues are jostling to be assigned the Cape flight. For them, the destination is an unsung gem, with near-perfect summer weather, cheap prices, and plenty to do.

“Everyone wants to come to South Africa,” she told me. At least flight crews do. But is it enough?

In Cape Town, attractions await tourists

Normally at this time of year the parking lot at the base of the Table Mountain cable car is packed with cars. According to hiking guide Rudy Van Dieman, on the busiest days more than a thousand visitors try to climb the iconic mountain early in the morning.

“It’s like a line going up the mountain,” he says.

But this year you can find a place to park and the hiking trail is lightly travelled. Van Dieman uses the extra time to raise money for a charity; he tries to climb Table Mountain – a two-hour hike – every day of the year.

The story is much the same at Robben Island, the prison-turned-museum where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. The museum is at less than half of its normal capacity. But the District Six Museum was perhaps the hardest hit. During omicron’s worst days, the facility only had five visitors a week.

Things are gradually improving – they reach around 50 visitors a week – but the museum is struggling to stay open. Chrischené Julius, the museum’s acting director, said at one point that it looked like the museum should close. But it received additional funding, and now visitors are slowly returning.

It’s fair to say that Cape Town’s attractions await the return of tourists. Some have. On a recent weekday morning on Table Mountain, you could hear British English and German spoken by visitors. But the numbers are not there. It should be one of the busiest times of the year, but the cable car was almost empty. There is still a long way to go.

Opportunities for post-pandemic visitors to South Africa

If you’re against the grain, now is the perfect time to consider a visit to South Africa. Elizabeth Gordon Halliday, CEO of luxury tour operator Extraordinary Journeys, said that although occupancy levels at many safari camps were rising, there were still good deals to be had. This is not high season for game drives; this occurs during the dry season, which runs from June to October.

“But you can still see wildlife,” she told me.

Likewise, hotel occupancy rates in places like Cape Town remain low. It is not uncommon to find hotels with only one or two out of ten rooms occupied. And that translates into deals, with some resorts including extra meals or nights for people booking now during this pandemic lull.

I have yet to encounter any American tourists while I’m here, which in itself is telling. This means that as summer turns into autumn, there will be many opportunities to visit South Africa – opportunities you may never see again.

Reopening tourism in South Africa: what’s next?

People are getting impatient in South Africa. As the rest of the world opens up again, South Africa has taken a more cautious approach to Covid-19. In his State of the Nation address last week, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa urged South Africans to continue to fight the pandemic. The government last maintained its masking and social distancing requirement and said it would lift its state of emergency in March.

Meanwhile, other countries have reduced or eliminated their Covid-19 restrictions. These include the UK, the biggest food market for South Africa, which could attract even more visitors to the country during the final days of summer.

Alex Kabalin, director of retail at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, says traders have had to pivot during the pandemic.

“They focused on domestic markets,” he explains.

For them, surviving the pandemic was a do-or-die moment. South Africa does not have the same social safety net as European countries, so the only way for traders to make a living in this food market and new business incubator was to create products that people wanted. to buy.

They can’t wait for international visitors to return.

“I think people rely more on local visitors,” he says. “International visitors will return, but for now we are seeing more local traffic and big weekends.”

You get this almost everywhere you go. People are tired of waiting for international visitors to return, so they make their own plans. If the British, Germans and Americans come back, that’s fine.

But otherwise, the South African tourism industry has a plan B.

About Mitchel McMillan

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