South African Tourism Rebounds, Future Factors at Play

Amidst a backdrop of uncertainty, South African tourism is displaying promising signs of recovery. As the country grapples with complex geopolitical shifts, airline industry changes, and safety concerns, the resilience of its tourism sector shines through.

Scenic View in Cape Town South Africa

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on South African tourism

The COVID-19 pandemic had a devastating impact on South African tourism, one of the country's key economic sectors. In 2020, international tourist arrivals to South Africa declined by 72%, and domestic tourismspending fell by 60%. This led to significant job losses and business closures across the tourism industry.

The pandemic had a number of direct and indirect impacts on South African tourism. The direct impacts included:

Economy and coronavirus

  • Travel restrictions: Many countries imposed travel restrictions on South Africa during the pandemic, which made it difficult for international tourists to visit the country.
  • Flight cancellations: Many airlines cancelled flights to South Africa, which further reduced the number of international tourists visiting the country.
  • Reduced demand: The pandemic led to a general decline in demand for travel, as people were reluctant to travel due to the risk of infection.

The indirect impacts of the pandemic on South African tourism included:

  • Economic recession: The pandemic caused a global economic recession, which led to a decline in disposable income and a reduction in spending on travel.
  • Consumer confidence: The pandemic also undermined consumer confidence, which made people less likely to travel.
  • Fear and uncertainty: The pandemic created a climate of fear and uncertainty, which made people less likely to travel, especially to international destinations.

The factors that are driving the recovery

The recent recovery in tourist arrivals in South Africa has been a promising development for the country's tourism industry. Several key factors have contributed to this positive trend:

  • Eased Travel Restrictions

As vaccination efforts progressed and COVID-19 cases decreased, South Africa gradually eased travel restrictions. This move allowed international travellers to return, boosting arrivals.

  • Pent-up Demand

Many travellers had postponed their trips due to the pandemic, resulting in pent-up demand. Once conditions improved, there was a rush to visit South Africa, particularly among those who had longed for safaris, cultural experiences, and outdoor adventures.

  • Domestic Tourism Continues to Thrive

While international arrivals increased, domestic tourism remained robust. South Africans continued to explore their own country, supporting local businesses and tourist destinations.

  • Marketing Campaigns and Safety Assurance

The South African government and tourism authorities launched marketing campaigns to reassure travellers about safety measures in place. Clear communication about health protocols and vaccination efforts helped restore confidence.

  • Nature-Based Tourism Appeal

South Africa's natural beauty and outdoor attractions, including wildlife safaris and pristine landscapes, continued to draw travellers seeking COVID-safe destinations.

  • Vaccine Passport Initiatives

The potential adoption of vaccine passports for international travel facilitated entry for vaccinated tourists, further encouraging visits to South Africa.

  • Resilience of the Tourism Sector

Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, the South African tourism industry demonstrated resilience by adapting to changing circumstances and finding innovative ways to provide safe and enjoyable experiences.

The challenges that the South African tourism industry still faces

The South African tourism industry continues to grapple with significant challenges, hindering its path to full recovery and growth as discussed below:

  • Ongoing Impact of COVID-19 Variants: The emergence of new COVID-19 variants and the potential for future waves of the virus can disrupt travel plans and erode confidence among travellers.
  • Economic Struggles for Tourism Businesses: Many tourism-related businesses, including hotels, restaurants, and tour operators, are still grappling with financial losses incurred during the pandemic. Some may struggle to recover or even face permanent closures.
  • Safety and Security Concerns: South Africa's crime rate remains a concern for tourists. Efforts to establish a dedicated tourist police force are ongoing, but addressing safety issues is essential for attracting and retaining visitors.
  • South African Airways Restructuring: While there is optimism regarding the future of South African Airways, the airline industry's stability is crucial for tourism. Delays or complications in the restructuring process could impact connectivity to and within South Africa.
  • Sustainability and Conservation: Ensuring the long-term sustainability of nature-based tourism, such as safaris, and conservation efforts is essential. Balancing tourism growth with environmental preservation is an ongoing challenge.
  • Vaccine Inequality: Vaccine inequality could limit international travel, as some countries may not have access to vaccines at the same rate as others. This could affect South Africa's ability to attract tourists from a wide range of source markets.
  • Competition from Other Destinations: South Africa faces competition from other countries that are also vying for tourists. Staying competitive in terms of pricing, marketing, and offering unique experiences is crucial.
  • Environmental and Climate Concerns: Climate change and environmental degradation can impact the attractiveness of certain destinations and wildlife habitats. Sustainable tourism practices are increasingly important for long-term viability.

The outlook for the future of South African tourism

The future of South African tourism presents a mixed outlook, with opportunities for recovery and growth countered by ongoing uncertainties and obstacles.

  • Recovery Momentum: The recent recovery in tourist arrivals and the pent-up demand for travel suggest that South Africa can regain its status as a popular tourist destination.
  • Domestic Tourism: The continued strength of domestic tourism provides a stable foundation, with South Africans exploring their own country and supporting local businesses.
  • Nature and Adventure Tourism: South Africa's natural beauty, wildlife, and outdoor adventures remain strong draws for international travellers seeking unique and sustainable experiences.
  • Vaccine Rollout: The progress of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, coupled with the potential adoption of vaccine passports, can boost international travel and restore confidence among tourists.
  • Tourism Resilience: The industry's demonstrated resilience in adapting to challenges and implementing safety measures positions it well for future growth.


How has South African tourism shown signs of recovery?

South African tourism has shown signs of recovery through an increase in international and domestic tourist arrivals, eased travel restrictions, and marketing efforts to boost traveller confidence.

What contributed to the recent recovery in South African tourism?

Factors contributing to the recovery include pent-up demand, successful vaccine rollouts, the appeal of nature-based tourism, and robust domestic tourism.

What challenges does the South African tourism industry still face?

Challenges include ongoing COVID-19 variants, economic struggles for tourism businesses, safety concerns, geopolitical shifts, and the need for airline industry stability.

How is South Africa addressing safety concerns for tourists?

South Africa is considering the formation of a special tourist police force to enhance safety and security for tourists.

What is the role of vaccine passports in South African tourism's recovery?

Vaccine passports are seen as potential tools to restore traveller confidence and facilitate international travel, contributing to the industry's recovery.

How can South Africa balance tourism growth with environmental sustainability?

Balancing growth with sustainability involves implementing eco-friendly practices, conserving wildlife habitats, and promoting responsible tourism.