South Africa’s inbound tourism recovery is currently characterised by an increase in arrivals from Europe, while significant economic pressures on consumers globally are still being outweighed by strong demand for international travel.

According to Stats SA’s latest Tourism and Migration Stats, of the 151 189 overseas arrivals in October, 65.6% came from Europe, up from 56.1% of the 126 409 arrivals in September. A sharp increase in arrivals from the UK (from 21 948 to 26 928) saw it reclaim its position as South Africa’s top international source market from the US, which has been buoying inbound recovery for the majority of the year. 

“We’re seeing a strong rebound from the European market, with the UK mid-market segment coming back a little slower. Many of our key source markets from Europe were not able to travel to South Africa due to travel restrictions while others like the US could, so it is inevitable that in the recovery these would claw back some of the market share,” said SATSA CEO, David Frost.

He said many of SATSA’s more than 1 100 members had said their bookings in November this year had been on a par with or even better than those of November 2019, an assertion that may be confirmed in the next set of official figures released by Stats SA.

Uplift from rest of Europe

Suzanne Benadie, Sales Director of Sense of Africa, said the inbound destination management company had also seen a rapid recovery from Italy and a pick-up in other European regions.

“Switzerland and the Benelux region continue to recover organically and build on travel. The UK, Ireland and the Nordics have been slower to recover but are on a steady trajectory now. There is a marked increase in multi-country travel again as well.”

The stats showed a significant rise in arrivals from Germany, from 13 118 in September, to 22 752 in October. For some inbound operators, however, arrivals from South Africa’s third-largest source market have been slower to recover.

“Arrivals out of Germany are still slow from our mainstream partners. We assume this has to do with the increase of airfares and uncertainties around energy costs. But we are experiencing an increase of arrivals from Europe, in particular out of Switzerland,” said Sabine Blehle, CEO of GoVacation Africa. 

Demand outweighs headwinds

Frost said demand for travel was still outweighing the significant financial pressures being placed on consumers.

“Inflationary pressures, global geopolitical challenges and airfare costs are all obstacles to inbound travel. However, while there are headwinds, the tailwinds – demand for travel – still outweigh these for now. We are optimistic that the mid-market will also bounce back in 2023.”

Benadie said the overall recovery rate of 63% compared with pre-pandemic levels was in line with expectations, but could have been accelerated with increased flight capacity and improved perceptions of South Africa as a destination. 

“There is a steady recovery as some markets are tracking higher, while others are just starting to see the first visitors returning to South Africa. With increased airlift and improved traveller perceptions about the destination, this figure could have been much higher.”

Healthy high-season outlook

As airlines from key source markets steadily expand their frequencies to South Africa, the inbound industry is optimistic of a buoyant tourist high season that will extend into 2023.

“We expect numbers to grow steadily as airlines increase the numbers of flights into the country and as flight fares normalise. We also foresee that group travel will increase as we are experiencing great interest from our overseas partners,” said Blehle.

Benadie emphasised the importance of this high season in gauging booking patterns, lead times and prominent markets, and gaining insights into popular segments.

“We expect to see group travel catch up to the recovery levels of FIT travel. Source markets will be looking for unusual and interesting accommodation, activities and excursions that have a sustainable element. If source markets contract due to inflation and other pressures, travellers will want to ensure that they are giving themselves the absolute best possible holiday experiences that their budgets allow for,” she highlighted.