South African tour operators have reported that forward bookings from key source markets have dropped in 2019 with visitors increasingly opting to travel to East Africa instead of South Africa.
Jim Holden, president of Holden Safaris, said he believes the main reason travelers tend to favor East Africa over South Africa for safaris is the rising prices in South Africa.
Said Holden: “With rates for lodges in South Africa exceeding US$2,000 per person, per night, a tipping point is being reached, where prospective travelers are looking for alternative safari destinations with more reasonable rates. While East Africa maintains its current pricing structure, more Americans will opt for a safari to East Africa, in preference to South Africa.”
“Our business to East Africa is way up, and our business to South Africa is down year-on-year,” added Craig Beal, the owner of Travel Beyond.
Holden’s and Beal’s thoughts echo industry feedback from ITB Berlin in March, where stakeholders agreed that the South African inbound tourism industry needed to price out-of-season products lower and capitalize on secondary tourism destinations to attract more visitors to the country.
The tide might turn for South Africa with United Airlines announcing plans to operate three direct flights a week between Newark and Cape Town beginning in December and lasting through May, pending approval from the U.S. DOT. The service would decrease the current travel time from the New York area to Cape Town by more than four hours, as most flights from the States to the South African city include layovers in Europe or the Middle East.
The travel trade is optimistic the new flight will boost travel to South Africa and more specifically to the Western Cape region of South Africa.
A study conducted by business management consultant Grant Thornton shows a direct flight to North America would add an estimated 24,000 passengers and add an estimated $19.6 million in direct tourism spending to the South African Cape economy and generate 890 jobs in the province in the first year.
Maija de Rijk-Uys, director of Go2Africa.com, welcomed the new service, saying: “We’re very excited about this new flight, which will bring even more of our U.S. clients directly into Cape Town, cutting down on flight time and the logistics of having to change planes in transit. This is a fantastic opportunity, and we welcome it. We hope this new flight will strongly contribute to a bumper 2020-2021 season.”
Wil Smith, co-founder and managing partner of Deeper Africa, said: “The direct flight will significantly increase visitation to South Africa from the U.S. There is a lot interest in South Africa among U.S. travelers. Traveling to Africa is always time consuming and can be exhausting. A faster flight means more time to spend on safari.”
Convenience is indeed an important factor for travelers today, added Suzanne Teng, Abercrombie & Kent product manager for Africa. She said she is hopeful that the new direct flight to Cape Town will help boost interest and travel to South Africa.
“Today’s time-challenged traveler would much rather spend their valuable vacation time on the ground in a destination rather than in transit. Cape Town and the neighboring area have so much to offer — world-class food and wine, cultural and adventurous activities — as well as being a jumping-off point for a safari. Anything that makes it easier for U.S. travelers to get there will benefit the destination,” she said.
Murray Gardiner, group CEO for Giltedge, said airfares will be key to determine the success of the route. “Flying to Africa is still expensive, and this is an opportunity to make the destination cost-effective,” he said. “Kenya Airways has done this for the New York-to-Nairobi route, which will certainly help their tourism numbers.”
Affordable and convenient flights alone are not enough to boost tourism to South Africa, though, according to Holden. He said: “More airlift from the U.S. to Cape Town will certainly help generate more business to South Africa, as long as South African lodge rates are comparable to other safari destinations in Africa. Direct flights on their own are not enough to entice Americans to fly to South Africa, if the cost of a safari to South Africa is measurably more than a similar safari to East Africa.”
Another obstacle that could hamper the success of the new route is the limited seasonality of the airline’s operations to Cape Town. Gardiner says he would like United to consider extending operations from June to October, which is a peak period for U.S. citizens to travel to southern Africa.
Beal agreed that the routes from December through May are good for snowbirds or expats who live in Cape Town in the winter but not necessarily good to bring clients on safari. He said: “November through March is the rainy season for southern Africa’s safari destinations and generally the time when you see the least animals per day on safari. Many safari spots in Zimbabwe and Zambia are shut down December to March. We also need to keep in mind that this route has not been successful in the past,” pointing to the Miami-to-Cape Town route that was abandoned by South African Airways in the late 1980s.
Beal further explained that Cape Town is also not the ideal transit for safari-goers. “Cape Town is in the southwest corner of the continent and is therefore a longer flying distance from most safari areas than Johannesburg. The distance and the lack of “peak safari season” operations may inhibit the success of this route.”