- Towards the end of November 2021, when the Omicron variant was identified by SA scientists, many countries imposed strict travel bans.
- This came just at the start of Cape Town's traditional peak summer tourist season.
- By mid-December, most travel bans had been lifted or eased again, and Cape Town still had a "lekker" tourist month, according to the CEO of Cape Town Tourism.
Cape Town International Airport saw around 20 000 international arrivals per day in the last two weeks of December 2021 – this after a number of governments relaxed travel bans imposed on South Africa when local scientists identified the Omicron variant in November.
When the variant was identified, the UK and several other countries - including Israel, Germany, Italy, Austria, Mauritius, the Netherlands, the US and Canada - imposed strict travel regulations that heavily impacted South Africa.
An estimated R1 billion in bookings from the UK were lost to SA businesses in the tourism and hospitality sector within the first 48 hours of being placed on the so-called "red list", local hospitality body Fedhasa estimated at the time.
Once bans were lifted, the City of Cape Town and Cape Town Tourism focused on key source cities, Munich, London and New York, with marketing campaigns to attract international visitors.
James Vos, mayoral committee member for economic growth at the City of Cape Town, said strategic marketing is ongoing in Germany, Portugal and other European countries. Efforts are also ongoing in North America and South America.
Research by Cape Town Air Access shows that international passenger recovery at Cape Town International Airport in December 2021 was 27% of pre-pandemic figures in 2019 figures. This was lower than the 38% reported in November 2021. Domestic air travel to Cape Town recovered to 66% of its pre-pandemic levels in December.
The V&A Waterfront, one of the most popular tourist attractions in the Mother City before the pandemic, reported a year-on-year increase of 31% in December and attributed it to eased restrictions and a strong influx of domestic travellers.
Speaking at a briefing on tourism recovery, held in conjunction with Cape Town Tourism on Wednesday, Vos described the Omicron-related bans as having "really hurt" the local tourism industry.
But at the same time, many South Africans who could not go overseas anymore, came to Cape Town instead, according to Enver Duminy, CEO of Cape Town Tourism. This was reflected in a lot of last-minute domestic bookings.
From October to December 2021 more than 850 000 people arrived in Cape Town by plane - a 56% recovery compared to the same period in 2019. More than 700 000 of these were domestic arrivals.
Duminy said the tourism sector would likely still take some time to bounce back.
"Yes, we had a lekker December and we see good forward bookings, but Covid-19 is not over yet. We do understand that recovery will take a little longer than we had hoped, but we are optimistic that this trend towards recovery continues in February, as we enter our second peak season," said Duminy.
"While the numbers look better, we need sustained tourism to really impact our local small business sector and start turning the devastating blows dealt by Omicron-linked travel bans around."
Vos says it is estimated that in December tourism contributed R800 million to the Cape Town Metro's economy.
But it is still estimated that there are 55% fewer jobs in the city's tourism sector than before the pandemic, Duminy said.
Vos flagged a few potential strategies for recovery.
"Affordability is important - having the right price to cost balance to make tourism accessible to as many people as possible, while keeping international standards," said Vos, adding that some local businesses tended to over-price rather than "pricing responsibly".
Apart from air access, Vos pointed to the importance of the cruise industry for Cape Town. Cruises have only recently been allowed to dock again after having been forbidden during harder lockdown levels.
Vessels which docked at the Cape Town Cruise Terminal during the November 2018 to April 2019 cruise season collectively contributed over R2 million in spend, estimates the Cruise Cape Town Initiative, a strategic project housed within Wesgro.