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Travel picks up slowly, with the continent leading the way

After the unprecedented 73% drop in international tourism recorded in 2020, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, demand for international travel remained weak at the beginning of 2021.
Daniel De Ciantis via
Daniel De Ciantis via Unsplash

As part of the tourism sector recovery strategy compiled by South African Tourism and the tourism industry, which was approved by cabinet in April 2021, it was predicted that the tourism sector recovery would start domestically, then progress regionally and then ultimately internationally.

The arrivals statistics from the continent from October 2020 to February 2021 indicate the gradual start of recovery from this region, in line with the predictions made in the tourism sector recovery strategy.

• International tourist arrivals (overnight visitors) plunged by 87.9% in January and February 20211, amid new variants of the pandemic and tighter travel restrictions. This follows a decline of 86% in the last quarter of 2020 when compared with 2019.

• From a regional perspective, Asia, the region which continues to have stringent travel restrictions in place, recorded a significant decrease in international arrivals in January and February 2021, decreasing by 91%. Europe and Africa both saw a decline of 96% and 85% in arrivals respectively, while the Middle East recorded a drop of 94% and the Americas a drop of 95%.

• Due to the worsening of the pandemic with a surge of cases and the emergence of new variants, many countries reintroduced stricter travel restrictions, including mandatory testing, quarantines and in some cases, complete closure of borders, on top of their local lockdowns, all weighing on the resumption of international travel. In addition, vaccination roll-out programmes have been slower than expected and quite uneven across countries and regions.

• With 32% of destinations worldwide showing complete border closures in early February 2021 and another 34% with a partial closure, UNWTO expects international tourist arrivals to be down about 85% in the first quarter of 2021, in comparison with the same period in 2019. This would represent a loss of some 260 million international arrivals when compared to pre-pandemic levels.

• Looking ahead, UNWTO has outlined two possible scenarios for 2021. The first scenario points to a rebound in July, which would result in a 66% increase in international arrivals for the year 2021 compared to the historic lows of 2020. In this case, arrivals would still be 55% below the levels recorded in 2019. The second scenario considers a potential rebound in September, leading to a 22% increase in arrivals compared to last year. Still, this would be 67% below the levels of 2019.

• The scenarios consider a number of factors, such as a gradual improvement of the epidemiological situation, a continued roll-out of Covid-19 vaccines, a significant improvement in traveller confidence and a major lifting of travel restrictions, in particular in Europe and the Americas.

South Africa

During 2020, South Africa received 2 802 320 arrivals, 87% of which were from January-March 2020. Of these arrivals, 2,054,604 were from the continent, coming through South Africa’s land boarders and 82 920 from the continent through the air borders.

Travel to South Africa from the Africa land markets was the biggest source of arrivals in 2020 and the same remains true for January and February 2021. During January and February 2021, the second-biggest source region was Europe followed by the Africa air markets.

Arrivals by region

Travel picks up slowly, with the continent leading the way

The top countries with the most arrivals into South Africa for 2020 period were Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Mozambique, Eswatini as well as Botswana. Zimbabwe accounted for over 684,546 arrivals, Lesotho 448,745, Mozambique 422,537, Eswatini 214,947 while Botswana contributed towards 129,467 arrivals.

Arrivals by country

Travel picks up slowly, with the continent leading the way

Although January and February saw arrivals of 229,299 for both months, the continent was still the main source of arrivals into South Africa. Zimbabwe remained the main source, with 59,268 arrivals, Mozambique 50,177 and Lesotho accounting for 40,116 arrivals.

Total arrivals by year

Travel picks up slowly, with the continent leading the way

Internationally, the United Kingdom, Germany and the USA were the main contributors to arrivals for 2020, January and February 2021. Cumulatively, these three markets accounted for 310 435 arrivals over 2020 and 8 665 in January and February 2021.

Travel picks up slowly, with the continent leading the way

“We are optimistic with what the numbers tell us, particularly when looking at October – December 2020 arrivals. One can see a growing increase of travellers from the continent, which is in line with our recovery strategy forecasts with regards to a recovery which is led by domestic and regional travel,” says South African Tourism’s chief executive officer, Sisa Ntshona.

Ntshona said South African Tourism would continue with its efforts to reignite tourism both on the continent and within the key international sources markets.

Internationally, although South African borders have remained open to visitors since the country moved to alert level one, towards the end of 2020, there has not been an influx of international visitors.

This is due to many contributing factors and considerations which influence people’s decisions whether or not to travel. Many of South Africa’s key source markets, such as the USA and the UK, have, at intervals, placed South Africa on their red lists whilst others have imposed travel advisories against South Africa.

As a result, this dissuades travellers from these countries visiting South Africa, as they will likely be subjected to mandatory quarantine when they return to their home countries.

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