Once the flight bans due to the coronavirus lockdown are lifted, South Africans could see a rush of cheap airline tickets becoming available, especially in the domestic market.
This is because supply is expected to be much larger than demand at that stage and airlines cannot just have their aircraft stand on the ground, about 2 000 roleplayers in the local tourism industry were told during a webinar hosted by SA Tourism on Thursday.
SAT is compiling a post-coronavirus crisis Tourism Recovery Plan and wants to use a series of webinars to engage the industry on solutions and scenarios going forward.
Ahead of the national lockdown, FlySafair saw a 50% drop in business. Once flight bans are lifted, the local aviation industry can expect to operate at similar levels, estimates Elmar Conradie, CEO of low-cost South African airline FlySafair.
A new normal
"If the lockdown did not come, we were getting ready to only operate about 30% of our flights. A lot will depend on the confidence of the domestic market, which is likely to return first once travel bans are lifted," he said during a webinar hosted by SA Tourism on Thursday. "We need to get used to doing things in a very different world. A new normal. It will not be the one we knew before the lockdown."
In his view, at some stage passengers would get used to travelling in a new way, for instance with planes being disinfected, hand sanitiser used and even masks - although that brings about additional costs.
FlySafair is doing what he believes most other airlines are doing during the current circumstances too, namely trying to stop "the bleeding".
"Our turnover has completely dried up for the lockdown period of three weeks, yet we have all the same expenses in terms of infrastructure costs, staff and more. So, we have to try and focus on getting costs down and, unfortunately that means impacting staff. We are also speaking to lessors to try and arrange some kind of deal," he said.
He said about 85% of the airline's low-cost tickets are sold on a non-refundable basis, yet, due to the unusual circumstances created by the pandemic, conditions have been relaxed.
"My biggest concern from a tourism point of view, is how we are going to survive. If some local airlines do not survive over the next two to three months, there will not be enough airline capacity to fill hotels, BnBs and lodges, because how are tourists going to get there?" he asked.
"And if hotels close down, there will, in turn, be no customers for the airline side. This would mean a systemic implosion in the tourism industry which would take many years to recover. That is why it is so vital for tourism businesses and airlines to hang through the pandemic. Once things return to greater 'normality, I think there will be lot of opportunities."
During the webinar, Chris Mears, CEO of the African Travel and Tourism Association in the UK, said it was important to begin looking towards creating a demand for travel once the pandemic environment starts to recover.
"Airlines will put routes on when the demand is there. We need to see that we have a sustainable tourism product when we get out at the other end of the pandemic. Now is not the time for sitting on our hands but do things in the background we have not had the time to do in the past," he urged.
He believes SA should still look to its traditional source markets like the UK, Europe and the US to see which of these show early signs of a return of a travel sentiment. He echoed Conradie's view that the tourism industry requires operational businesses to sustain its recovery.
Something to offer
"We must ensure that we have something to offer when we get to the other side and learn from this crisis. There are going to be similar crises in future and we have to be able to prepare for them," he added.
For Graham Wood, COO of Sun International, there is now an opportunity for the travel and tourism industry to get together and discuss visa issues and other barriers to making SA an attractive long-haul destination after the coronavirus crisis is over.
"This lockdown period allows us to question why we are spending money on certain things and why we do things in a certain way. We can see how to save money and protect jobs. Things will return to some form of normality and people would still want to explore and travel," said Wood.
He emphasised that it is not about dropping prices, but rather about creating value for consumers. He agrees with Mears that SA should still focus on its traditional source markets for tourists once travel sentiment returns.
"It is about how we can make it easier to do business with SA. We have some structural challenges to overcome before we can see a flood of international tourists return again," he said.