President Cyril Ramaphosa’s dream of having 21 million tourists visit South Africa by 2021 might have to be deferred, after Stats SA announced on Thursday that about 48 000 fewer overseas tourists came to the country between January and October this year, compared with the same period last year.
That’s the equivalent of 160 fewer Boeings, carrying 300 passengers, who simply stayed away.
The total decline in overseas visitors, if those who enter the country by road are taken into account, was 192 760.
This decrease will sharpen should SAA end up in liquidation.
The airline is the only one connecting South Africa with scores of important cities, including Washington DC in the US; Perth, on Australia’s West Coast; and Lagos, the commercial capital of Nigeria. A large number of travellers visit South Africa from these cities.
There are direct flights out of South Africa to 57 cities worldwide. SAA and other airlines provide services to 13 of these, including London, Frankfurt and Windhoek; 34 cities are exclusively serviced by other airlines (among them Tel Aviv, Singapore and Rome) and a further 10 are serviced only by SAA (including Kinshasa, Dar es Salaam, Accra, Abidjan and Dakar).
But the tourism industry will probably be most concerned about Washington, Perth and Lagos, which will temporarily, or possibly even permanently, lose their connection to South Africa if SAA goes under.
Stats SA’s latest numbers showed that 313 511 US citizens travelled to South Africa between January and October (-0.5% compared with last year), 91 165 Australians (-4.9%) and 33 836 Nigerians (-22.5%).
After Arik Air, a Nigerian airline, took its last flight to OR Tambo on February 10 2017, SAA is the only airline that connects Nigeria to South Africa.
In the case of Australia, SAA operates the only flight to Perth, leaving just Qantas with a direct flight between the two countries (to Sydney).
Although the US airline, Delta, flies daily between Johannesburg and Atlanta, and United Airlines landed in Cape Town on Monday for the first time, direct from New York, SAA operates five weekly flights to Washington (via Dakar and Accra) and a daily direct flight to New York (John F Kennedy).
An aviation expert who spoke to City Press’ sister publication, Rapport, on condition of anonymity, said it wasn’t as easy as simply establishing a flight on a route previously serviced by a failed airline.
In the case of Washington, Perth and Lagos, the US, Australian and Nigerian authorities would have to amend bilateral agreements governing flights between the countries.
“The onus will be on us and on the departments of transport in those countries to act fast,” said the expert.
But this can take a long time: It is understood that negotiations for United Airlines’ new flight to South Africa took 12 months.
In addition, the South African government recently withdrew from the annual meeting of the UN’s aviation regulator, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (Icao), on short notice. The meeting took place in Aqaba, Jordan, between December 2 and 6.
“It’s like speed dating. It’s where every country agrees which airline can fly to what destination. But South Africa withdrew the minute SAA was placed in business rescue,” said the expert.
Icao’s next Ican meeting (air service negotiation event) will take place only in December next year.
The central role that SAA plays in the local tourism industry is underscored not only by the 1.175 million international passengers that the airline transported last year, according to SAA spokesperson Tlali Tlali, but also by comments made by Chris Zweigenthal, head of the Aviation Association of SA (AASA) on December 5.
Zweigenthal warned that the entire aviation industry would be affected by the collapse of SAA, as a result of the interdependence of various players and because SAA Technical also services the aircraft of Comair (British Airways and Kulula).
“The net effect of any uncontrolled SAA exit, against which the air transport and tourism industries are unable to implement contingency plans, would be slowed or even negative economic growth,” the AASA said.
The organisation quoted figures from Oxford Economics, a leader in global forecasting and quantitative analysis, which found last year that aviation, and the broader tourism industry, sustains more than 470 000 job opportunities.
United’s maiden flight out of Cape Town on Monday, the result of intense negotiations between the Western Cape government’s Wesgro initiative, the City of Cape Town, the national government and the private sector, was good news not just for Cape Town, but for the whole country, because the US is the second-biggest source of overseas tourists to South Africa (the UK is number one).
A United spokesperson, which operates 4 900 daily flights and has 788 planes in its fleet, told Rapport that the airline believes the potential of the route is enormous.
“It’s estimated that 237 000 passengers will travel in each direction between Cape Town and the US, which represents about 118 000 annual return flights.”
And, thanks to United’s extensive route network, passengers travelling to New York on Monday night’s flight were not just travelling to Newark, but to 60 onward destinations across North America.
- United will fly directly to Cape Town three times a week from the end of March and will then decide whether to make this seasonal route permanent.