Business travel hit harder than leisure by coronavirus - but the sector is already working on fixes

(iStock)
(iStock)

South Africa will likely see international tourist arrivals decreasing due to coronavirus, with business events like conferences taking the biggest hit, according to Sisa Ntshona, CEO of SA Tourism.

Some of these events attract between 10 000 and 20 000 delegates each.

"The meetings industry is at risk, because, even if we had to find an island with zero coronavirus cases and have a conference there, people won't come, because it is not about the destination, but about where other delegates are coming from," Ntshona said. Moreover, many corporates are issuing no-travel notices to employees.

Focus on domestic tourism

Ntshona thinks the tourism industry should, therefore, try to focus on potential in the domestic tourism market.

"We are selling a perishable product. We must try to reorganise consumption. We are also waiting to hear government's views on mass gatherings," he said.

"If these are banned, that will impact the cost to the industry as well, but we will fall in line with whatever is decided."

That being said, he added, the industry's major annual gathering, scheduled just weeks away, is still set to go ahead. "Our approach is to keep the tourism sector informed on a daily basis, and at this stage the annual Tourism Indaba in May is still on," he said. 

Like Ntshona, Otto de Vries, CEO of the Association of Southern African Travel Agents (ASATA), told Fin24 on Thursday it appeared South African travel agents were seeing a bigger impact on corporate travel than leisure travel due to coronavirus. ASATA is conducting a survey to ascertain the impact the pandemic is having on the local industry.

"We are advising customers to defer instead of cancelling their travel, unless there is a travel cancellation waiver or travel ban in place," De Vries said.

Don't panic - look at alternatives

Enver Duminy, CEO of Cape Town Tourism, believes it's increasingly clear that coronavirus could affect the tourism sector in multiple ways. Cape Town Tourism is in communication with other stakeholders in the South African tourism sector to ensure there is a coordinated response to the various ways in which Covid-19 could affect the sector.

He, too, says that tourism - and events tourism in particular - plays an important role in the SA economy. He is pleased that there has been no indication from authorities to restrict events and, as of now, the city’s major events, while remaining prepared for Covid-19, are still scheduled to go ahead, with the necessary precautionary hygiene measures emphasised.

Andrew Grunewald, Flight Centre Business Travel (FCBT) brand leader, says while it is easy to give into alarm and indiscriminately suspend all business travel, but that doing this, especially within an SME business, can do more harm than good.

A better approach, in his view, is to make sure that you and your employees have the latest information on the situation. Then you can better assess the benefits and risks related to upcoming travel plans and make a plan to manage the risk.

Dr Lize Barclay, senior lecturer in futures studies and systems thinking at the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB) says many companies and education facilities have moved their day-to-day operations onto technology platforms, while several conferences have also taken the digital route. 

She sees potential for the SA tourism sector to look into opportunities to market themselves in the virtual reality space.

"The tourism industry would have to look at alternatives. Things like floods, droughts and pandemics happen. Always have an alternative source of income or alternative use for your facility."

She foresees that one of the results of the impact of the pandemic on the tourism industry, might be that there is less of a need to hire seasonal workers during traditionally busy periods.

"Look at who your clients are and see how you can reach them with alternatives."

Upswing

Hospitality body Fedhasa Cape, working in partnership with the Western Cape Department of Health, Wesgro and Cape Town Tourism, says its member establishments are ready to welcome visitors to the Western Cape despite global travel concerns.

"While we have seen a decline in travellers from affected countries, such as Italy, we've seen more visitors from countries such as the US, Canada and Germany. We’ve been pleasantly surprised by the resilience of travellers, and this upswing could be a result of travellers choosing to visit destinations that have not been severely affected by the virus," says FEDHASA Cape spokesperson Richard Lyon.

Lyon also urged travellers to remain calm. Preventative measures have been rolled out across hotels, which includes education on hand washing and heightened hygiene in public areas. Should any guests show symptoms of the virus, these guests will be isolated, and the establishment will follow the protocol set out by health authorities, he adds.

Aviation economist Joachim Vermooten told Fin24 that it is clear that public concern on contracting the coronavirus and travel restrictions imposed by many countries will have a dampening effect of air travel demand.

"It is also difficult to judge how long the crisis will last and especially how quickly levels of demand would take to recover and the level of travel insurance that would remain in place," said Vermooten.

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