Industry expresses mixed feelings on forward bookings.

A year rife with international reports of the Cape Town water crisis, crime and land expropriation – 2018 set the scene for flat to declining forward booking numbers in South Africa heading into 2019.

The industry expressed mixed reports of forward bookings, with a number of factors coming into play that funnelled booking movements.

“We are anticipating a meaningful decline in passenger numbers to South Africa and Namibia for the year, with no foreseeable turnaround in 2019,” said Martin Wiest, CEO of Tourvest Destination Management. Wiest attributes the decline to current industry conditions: weakening of the product-price value proposition, and consistent rate increases with a strengthening Rand making SA a relatively more expensive destination compared to its continental counterparts – a key contributing factor for most travellers who make a decision on where to travel based on budget first and destination second.

“There hasn’t been a lot of good news coming out of the destination over the last year and a half,” continues Wiest: “Among other things, the ‘Day Zero’ campaign did a considerable amount of damage to South Africa’s brand.”

Sabine Blehle, CEO of GoVacation Africa, agrees that forward numbers for 2019 are on a decline, and foresees 2019 as being a challenging year. “South Africa has been a trend destination for many years, supported by the fact of being extremely affordable. South Africa has, however, become expensive. Travellers that don’t have a specific desire to travel to South Africa, basing the decision on budget, would currently not choose South Africa as their holiday destination.”

This does not bode well for tourism to the country, but Wiest says that the downturn plays a necessary role in realigning pricing to make southern Africa, once again, a competitive destination globally. “In 2017 and 2018 we saw unhealthy volumes which South Africa does not currently have the infrastructure to maintain. Now that the market is normalising, the focus can be on South Africa being an experiential destination rather than a mass tourism destination. The slowdown in the market also poses an opportunity for DMCs to focus on refining processes and service delivery. The conditions create a free market economy which fosters a balanced relationship between DMCs and suppliers.”

This is an important point to consider, as Suzanne Benadie, Sales Director at Tourvest DMC, points out that East Africa is seeing the increase in demand as a result of slower bookings for southern Africa.

Sliding source markets

These drops are being seen from a number of source markets to South Africa: Canada, Germany, Switzerland, United Kingdom, Belgium, Netherlands and SA’s own domestic market, are taking their bookings elsewhere. However, industry players note that arrivals from the USA, Benelux, Australia, and Italy are still positive. Bookings are also looking good from Brazil, says André Laget, Managing Director of Akilanga DMC and Events.

“Tourists are looking for great value for money destinations and countries like Egypt and Turkey are coming up as hot and trendy,” says Blehle: “Flight times are shorter and more affordable, and these destinations offer cheap packages to regain lost market share.” North Africa is also selling very well for some of Tourvest’s group series clients, says Benadie, “and they have reported huge growth in demand for Egypt and Jordan. There has been pent-up demand for the Middle East, and many travellers consider it a safe destination once again. Iceland is a popular destination, and so is South America.” Penny Rice, Marketing Manager of Isibindi Lodges also sees Turkey, Greece and the Carribean taking tourism market share from SA.

Looking forward

Some industry players expect the lean forward-booking phase to end as the year hits its halfway mark. “We are on a growth trajectory with confirmed bookings for the year ahead,” says Angela Iacovazza, Head of Global Sales and Product Development of TouchDown DMC; echoed by Pieter van der Schee, Sanctuary Retreats’ Global Director of Sales and Marketing. “We are pleased with where our bookings are – we see a good, healthy, regular stream of bookings coming in that we’re happy with.”

Heidi Halgryn, Marketing Executive of Forever Resorts, Lodges, Hotels and Retreats, says that bookings are looking healthy for both the leisure and group markets. Benadie adds: “Positive news around air routes and visa requirements will boost our tourism numbers, and some of these source markets have short booking periods, so we are confident that stakeholders will work hard to facilitate this and it will boost 2019 arrival numbers. The next big peak season from Europe will be from October 2019, and our forward bookings look much healthier, with a number of group series already confirmed and selling well.”

Nic Griffin, CEO of Thornybush Luxury Game Lodge Collection, concurs, believing that the industry will fare better in the latter half of 2019.

However, Rice is not as optimistic, saying that “bad news always spreads faster than good news; the recent fires are not good for Cape Town’s image, and the upcoming elections will have people putting travel plans to SA on hold”.