South Africa, with its rolling vineyards, abundant big game, the iconic Table Mountain, endless sandy beaches, and vast cultural riches, would have expected to benefit from a post-virus travel boom.
However, a week of violent rioting and looting risks discouraging foreign visitors and undermining recovery hopes, according to the industry, compounding losses caused by the country’s mounting coronavirus toll.
Tracey Hellerle of the Umzolozolo lodge near Ladysmith in KwaZulu-Natal province, which was the epicenter of the riots, said every visitor who had booked to stay during the riots had cancelled. Before Covid-19, visitors from all over the world – and, during the pandemic, from all over the country – would sit on poolside sun loungers overlooking the Nambiti game reserve’s undulating plains, hoping to spot one of the Big Five game animals.
“We’d just begun to get back into the swing of things,” Hellerle explained, noting that a drop in bookings due to the pandemic had already resulted in layoffs.
“People were just too scared to travel (and) because of the riots, the N3 (motorway) was closed, which had turned into a war zone, and people were just too terrified to get in their vehicles to travel.” Since the looting and rioting began on July 9, 212 people have died, with 180 of them dying in KwaZulu-Natal.
Tourism is an important part of South Africa’s economy, which was already struggling before Covid-19 and the riots.
According to official statistics, the industry contributed 355 billion rand ($24.6 billion, 21 billion euros) to the economy in 2019 – 7% of GDP – and employed 759,900 people.
Guesthouse owner Heinrich Pelser fears that the unrest will deter foreign tourists from visiting Clarens, an idyllic tourist town nestled at the foot of the Maluti mountains and a popular weekend retreat five hours by car inland from Durban. “Looking at Canadians and Americans, I don’t think they’ll come anytime soon,” he said.
Pelser’s Stonehaven cottages have hosted drivers fleeing riot-ravaged Durban, as well as one man on his way to the city to bring food to his mother, he said.
Alcohol sales are prohibited nationwide due to coronavirus restrictions, which is a particular blow for Clarens, which is known for its microbreweries, and the Western Cape province, which is known for its wineries and serves as the terminus of the prestigious Blue Train. “It’s not worth coming here unless you can sample the cheese, wine, and beers,” says Pelser, who employs six full-time employees.
Tourist-oriented businesses in Cape Town, the capital of the Western Cape and a popular stop for cruise ships, say the lack of visiting liners has hurt them.
“It’s been painfully slow. We used to have a lot of cruise passengers. We’re just waiting to see if this vaccine means they’ll be able to return “said the manager of the Wild Thing Africa souvenir shop on the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town.
“Now we don’t want (the violence) to come here,” she said, only identifying herself as Simone. Nearby, nearly all of the passengers on a red double-decker Cape Town tour bus disembarked beside the city’s Two Oceans Aquarium.
“It’s normal here, so I feel very safe. The coronavirus restrictions have been less difficult than I had anticipated “said a passenger who identified himself only as Brian and was on his way to see his South African girlfriend.
In yet another blow to Durban’s tourist appeal, officials have closed several beaches in the city’s north, which are usually popular with both local and foreign visitors, due to chemical contamination caused by nearby industrial arson. The Durban Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s chief growth officer, Zanele Khomo, described the events as “devastating” for the city’s tourism economy.
“It’s going to hurt us as a country in terms of tourism,” she added.
The looting’s devastation has been broadcast around the world, as have fake news stories about attacks on tourist areas.
“Once the riots have died down, South Africa is very popular, and once it’s safe to come, people will definitely travel,” said Hellerle of Umzolozolo Lodge, noting that some lodges in KwaZulu-Natal had been empty since March 2020.