Job losses loom large for tourism industry despite reopening opportunities

The tourism sector in Mpumalanga Province employs approximately 80 000 people and contributes over R10.5 billion annually to the GDP of the province. There is no doubt that the global COVID-19 novel coronavirus pandemic has decimated the tourism sector in Mpumalanga and South Africa in general.  The tourism industry is “one of the hardest-hit by the outbreak of COVID-19” as lockdowns have all but ground the sector to a halt.

Despite the slow opening up of tourism under Lockdown Level 3 and the planned increased operating opportunities announced by President Ramaphosa on 17 June, the industry remains very vulnerable.  Focussing on domestic market tourism traffic might be well and good, but until interprovincial travel is permitted and international travel resumes, occupancies are likely to remain low in general and most tourism businesses will remain marginal at best. Best case scenario is that tourism turnovers will show only small increases, but that this will be insufficient to carry all pre-Covid-19 workers.  Some 30000 jobs are likely to be lost in the province over the next few months. This will all take place in an environment of low short to medium demand for tourism products and experiences.

There are multiple challenges faced by tourism businesses (in particular small businesses).  Most obviously, these include lack of funds to gear up to re-open in a low demand environment and an inability to employ pre-Covid-19 staff numbers. Oupa Pilane, President of Kruger Lowveld Business Chamber and Tourism reiterates his earlier call that urgent intervention is needed to save the sector in the province and every sphere of government, including Eskom, needs to come to the party. 

“The sector needs government grants to assist businesses to open. The current R200 million has not benefitted the tourism sector in the province.  We need municipalities not to switch off utilities as this will hamper small business to reopen. We are calling on Eskom to halt the charging municipalities exorbitant interests on their account as this is putting pressure on the ability of the municipalities to provide serves and service their Eskom debts.  The Covid-19 health and safety protocols require further investments from the small business that have not been earning an income and so we therefore are calling on government to assist small business to acquire the Covid-19 safety equipment and the training of the sector on this pandemic” says Pilane.

He comments further, “We welcome the relaxation measures by the President on the sector including restaurant and beauty spas but this will mean nothing if the movement of people and leisure tourism continue to be restricted in any way, other than observing the Covid-19 safety protocols. We will expect that people should be allowed to visit tourist attractions in the province as most of them are outdoor making it easy to maintain social distances. We will continue to make presentations to the government to further ease interprovincial travel, especially to provinces with low infection rates, and we will lobby on measures of opening international travel as soon as possible.”

At the same time, Pilane stresses that issues facing the sector pre Covid-19 should not be put on the back burner.  These include decline in tourism numbers due to safety concerns, dilapidated state of government owned and operated tourism attractions and crumbling road infrastructure. If these issues are not addressed, the tourism industry stands to lose more than the 30000 already anticipated due to Covid-19.