Omicron drove foreign tourists to cancel - so South Africans grabbed the holiday specials instead

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Total income for the tourist accommodation industry increased by 46.6% in December 2021 compared with December 2020, according to StatsSA. (Pic: ANEW Hotels)
Total income for the tourist accommodation industry increased by 46.6% in December 2021 compared with December 2020, according to StatsSA. (Pic: ANEW Hotels)
Photo supplied by ANEW

South Africans opted to "ditch their tents and caravans" for a little more luxury in December, as cancellations from overseas visitors amid the Omicron outbreak sparked a flood of last-minute accommodation specials.

Hotel, self-catering and guesthouse accommodation were in steady supply over the festive season, says Lee-Ann Bac, director at the specialist tourism unit of international consulting firm BDO.

"The impact of the world's reaction to South Africa's identification of the Omicron variant on foreign tourism arrivals to SA was devastating. Overnight travel bans led to a flurry of cancellations from foreign visitors and left accommodation providers with extensive available supply right on the cusp of the busiest season," Bac commented on the latest data released by Statistics SA on Monday.

Total income for the tourist accommodation industry increased by 46.6% in December 2021 compared with December 2020, StatsSA said.

This is in nominal terms, therefore, not taking inflation into account, and also includes restaurant and bar sales as well as "other" income.

Income from accommodation only increased by 18.4% year-on-year in December 2021. Hotels contributed 45.1% and guesthouses and guest farms 45.7%.

Investec economist Lara Hodes agrees that "lenient local lockdown measures" likely saw South Africans flocking to popular holiday destinations in December, buoying the domestic tourism sector. Hodes notes that, according to the Tourism Business Council of South Africa (TBCSA) the sector's December 2021 trading had reached 64% of pre-pandemic levels in December 2019.

Bac cautions that the tourism industry has not "recovered", nor does the latest data mean that the industry had a bumper season.

Overall room occupancy levels for December were 31.4%. In December 2019, average room occupancy was 51.3% and 30% in 2020. Hodes notes that the December 2021 occupancy level of 31.4% is the highest level since the onset of Covid-19, but still notably below pre-pandemic levels.

The StatSA data doesn't give a regional perspective, but according to recent data by market analytics firm STR, KwaZulu-Natal achieved the highest accommodation occupancy along with fairly good rates. In real terms - therefore taking inflation into account - there was, however, no real growth compared to 2019.

"The smaller provinces such as Limpopo and the North West - in terms of accommodation supply - also fared quite well, proving that the domestic market isn't all about beach and sea. Staying in hotels, visiting family and friends and visiting inland attractions are also popular," says Bac.

"The Western Cape, with an extensive supply of accommodation stock, did fairly well in terms of hotel demand, but overall occupancies and rates were significantly down compared to 2019, clearly indicating that this market is heavily reliant on the foreign market."

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