Optimism Builds in South Africa’s Travel and Tourism Sector

by Ronnie Afema
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Two years ago, the tourism and airline industry were hit by one the most devastating pandemics ever in the history of mankind bringing the sectors to a screeching halt.

Here in Africa, the pandemic laid bare the ailing health system as thousands in the throes of death— were trapped in ill-equipped hospitals across the country.

The blaring horn from ambulances often rang out across the streets as those ailing were rushed to hospitals and to retrieve bodies of those who died and were buried in undignified ceremonies— isolated from their relatives, to halt the spread of the disease.

When I visited the Rainbow nation in 2021, I remember walking past a ghost airport at Oliver Tambo in Johannesburg, which accounts for the largest passenger traffic in Africa. Because of the inactivity, the airport served as a sanctuary for birds to practice how to take off into the skies and be able to perch.

As the drastic effects of the disease recede in the background, there is a rising optimism that both the tourism and airlines industry— glove in hand sectors could rebound.

Various relief measures were implemented by the South African government. Among them included the implementation of globally benchmarked norms and standards to build traveller confidence: support for the protection of core tourism infrastructure and stimulating demand through various campaign and marketing programs to reignite domestic and international demand.

A lot of lessons and reviews came up for discussion due to Covid 19. A major lesson was the urgent need for crisis management in the travel and tourism sector including the required resources to sustain the industry. It then led to the birth of the collaboration, connecting and sharing insights aiming for the return of the 2019 tourism statistical levels South Africa once experienced.

When I returned for the 52nd annual conference of the Airlines Association of South Africa (AASA), the dark clouds that hovered over Oliver Tambo international airport, began to clear as planes took off into the less turbulent skies.

The frequency of flights has grown exponentially after Emirates airlines recently doubled and tripled daily flights to Cape town and Durban respectively. Because of the intimate relationship between aviation and Tourism, the recovery has been contagious enough to also positively affect the steady and exponential growth of mostly the airlines in the South African region.

Domestic Flights growth in the Southern African region

Amongst the cheapest in the world with a high flight route variety and low-price ranges, all due to the low-cost airline competition, the following airlines are helping to reduce flight prices and exponentially expedite aviation recovery in the South Africa.

Airlink is a 30-year-old airline based in Johannesburg, South Africa. Its main business is to provide services between smaller, under-served towns and connect to its larger hub airport base. It has since expanded to offer flights on larger, mainline routes. The airline has an ever-expanding network of over 60 routes and more than 50 destinations with a fleet size of 57 aircraft, Kudos to Rodger Foster the airline CEO who has propelled Airlink to greater dizzying heights both locally and internationally.

South African Airways, the official flag carrier of south Africa. Founded in 1934, the airline is headquartered in Airport Park at OR TAMBO international airport in Johannesburg and operated a hub-and-spoke network, serving ten destinations within Africa. I recently boarded the SAA flight from Johannesburg to cape town it was full board a clear sign we are headed to Pre-Covid levels both in aviation and tourism. With talk of increasing the fleet size we can’t wait to see the South African carrier claim its air rights once again, currently it operates 6 regional and 3 domestic routes.

FlySafair, is an international low-cost airline based in Johannesburg, South Africa. I had four flights on this amazing airline in the month of October from Cape town to Durban and Durban to Johannesburg. With a fleet size of 25 aircraft and led by a prominent name in the industry, Elmar Conradie who has been CEO from 2015.

CemAir is another airline experiencing growth in South Africa and helping to relieve diminished capacity in the market. It is  a privately-owned airline operating in South Africa, servicing popular tourist destinations and important business towns, as well as leasing aircraft to other airlines across Africa and the middle East. Founded in 2002, CEM Air currently operates a fleet size of 23.

The 52ND AASA Conference

Bringing together government, the aviation industry, the tourism industry and the different stake-holders with a main goal and purpose of ensuring the flight plan drawn to achieve the future dreamt of we refer to as the African dream is achieved.

In Southern Africa, the Airline Association of Southern Africa, AASA leads and coordinates the airline industry position on airport, airspace and civil aviation issues. AASA is the leading Airline representative organization within Southern Africa. Established in 1970 to present the mutual interest of its members. Members only caters for all airlines based in the south of the equator including the Indian ocean islands. Currently made of 15 airlines AASA is a regular participant and contributor to the International civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and International Air Transport Association (IATA) initiatives in the region.

The global economic effects on the industry

Air travel across the world is becoming less affordable. Rising fuel costs and high demand have forced airlines to raise flight prices and it is of concern to all of us that travel prices continue to increase with domestic airfare ticket costs substantially up and not affordable to many who would want to travel thus affecting gravely the revenue inflows and passenger number.

Earlier this year the South African competition authority the competition commission warned against passengers being exploited by other airlines following the announcement of suspension of the Air Operator Certificate of COMAIR by the south African Civil aviation authority. In June this year, a litany of complaints from travellers were filed as ticket prices continued to sky-rocket— the competition commission advised airlines to be fair and conscious to consumers following the indefinite collapse of Comair, which controlled and managed a huge lion share of 40% of the southern African airline capacity.

To ensure vibrant collaboration between and amongst stake-holders in the industry, AASA called upon relevant partners to collaborate with the association as they effectively advocate for the re-establishment of the pre-Covid -19 route network and new routes connecting various appropriate markets.

 The South African tourism numbers rising

With a good rising projectile, the south African tourism sector in the month of October showed a significant increase in both international and domestic tourism numbers. since January 2022 South Africa has registered a total of 3.3 million international arrivals at their three international airports, OR Tambo international airport, King Tshaka international airport and Cape town international airport.  This signifies a 165% increase compared to the figures same time last year.

““Our tourism numbers continue to show a steady upward trajectory. We’re excited to head into summer, which is our peak season, with such great performance and in high spirits as a sector. This is also a good indication that the work that our teams have been doing in the various markets has been effective and is paying off,” says Mzilikazi Themba Khumalo, South African Tourism’s Acting Chief Executive Officer. International arrivals as of August 2022 registered a whooping (555832) into south Africa, as compared to 2021 it registered a 199% increase and a 10% growth in the international arrivals, when compared to July 2022.

Africa and Europe have consistently been the biggest sources of arrivals to South Africa, thus far, 2.5 million arrivals were from the continent, which represents a 75% share. Arrivals from Europe came second with a share of 15%.

From a domestic perspective, a huge number of South Africans are also embracing the country’s beautiful landscape. From January to August 2022, 21.3 million domestic trips were taken recording a 140% increase compared to 2021 this signifies a 92% growth over the 2019 pre-pandemic levels. “Our domestic tourism sector is the cornerstone of our tourism sector, so we are pleased to see that domestic tourism is growing, not only in numbers but also in spend,” continues Khumalo. Year-to-date, domestic spend has seen incredible growth of 190% over 2021 to reach R59.2 billion, with the average domestic tourist spending R2 781 per trip.

“Interestingly, the number of bed nights increased, meaning people are not only travelling but are spending more nights away from home. This shows that as South Africans we are surely inculcating a culture of travel amongst ourselves,” concludes Khumalo.

 African Airlines Future

With a recovery trajectory on track from the nightmares caused by the covid-19 pandemic. According to AFRAA data reveals that traffic and airlines capacity deployed reached 82.52% and 82.1% of the 2019 level respectively. 99.2% of the routes operated by African Airlines have now resumed, with 8 of the African airlines exceeding the number of international routes they operated before Covid a clear example is Airlink coupled with the massive shares acquisition in air Namibia. African airlines combined contributed to about 2.5% of the world traffic, this dropped to 1.8% in 2021, however there is a clear sign of recovery.

The Russia-Ukraine crisis has negatively impacted the aviation industry which in a way affects tourism due to high travel costs thus low traffic. The steep rise of fuel prices from $78 a barrel in 2021 to an estimated average of $142 in 2022 is negatively affecting airlines financial performance.

African Airline passenger traffic dropped 60.2% in 2020 due to the covid-19. As airlines recover from huge revenue losses as depicted by improvement of load factors however not yet on 2019 levels. A summation of USD 8.6 billion was lost by airlines in 2021 as passenger revenue continued to drop representing 49.8% of the 2019 revenues.

The percentage of African airlines connectivity as compared to Feb 2020 reached 99.2% in September 2022. Connectivity is still low in Africa, currently up to 22% of Africans traveling between two African cities are forced to travel through non -Africa HUBS either in Europe or the Middle East. This can only be reversed through networks and schedules coordination at African hubs. Connectivity is intricately aligned to trade, business development and tourism. currently the intra-Africa trade is modest at 18% which is very low compared to Europe 64% or Asia which is above 50%.

A successful and viable African aviation industry requires concerted efforts and close collaboration among all stakeholders, from governments, regulatory authorities, airlines, airports, air navigation service providers, suppliers of a wide range of aviation products and services, and customers.

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