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By Adriaan Kruger

Moneyweb: Freelance journalist


Tourism numbers paint a different picture than official statements

At the height of the tourist season at the end of 2015, every dollar was worth R14. At the end of 2023 a dollar bought R19.


Upbeat comments by politicians and tourism bodies about growth in the sector are decidedly at odds with the official numbers of foreign tourists visiting South Africa.

It is true that the number of tourists arriving in the country increased sharply in 2023 compared to 2022, as celebrated in a recent report – as is the warning by Cape Town officials that the number of tourists arriving on cruise ships this week is such that traffic problems should be expected. But visitors numbers are still way lower than before the Covid-19 pandemic.

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Of concern is that tourism in SA is recovering slower than in the rest of the world, indicating that there are local problems that are keeping tourists away.

The most recent Statistics SA report on tourism shows the number of foreign tourists visiting the country last year increased by 45% compared to 2022 – with nearly 11.7 million foreign visitors arriving in 2023 versus just over eight million the year before.

But one needs to look at more statistics to put this big increase in tourist numbers into perspective.

Compared to 3.1 million arrivals in 2021 and 4.6 million in 2020, the recent number does look good, but both those years were affected by the international ban on travel due to the pandemic.

The latest figure of 11.7 million is still far off the nearly 16 million foreign visitors who arrived in SA during 2019 before Covid-19 disrupted everything.

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The number of foreign tourists visiting SA is in fact back at 2010 levels when arrivals totalled just less than 11.6 million.

Annual arrivals of foreign visitors

No growth in foreign tourism since 2010
Source: Data collected from Stats SA reports

Foreign visitors to SA increased steadily every year since 2000, from six million arrivals then to a high of more than 16 million in 2016.

The next few years were also good, with arrivals of just less than 16 million per annum between 2017 and 2019.

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Currently, we are still more than 25% below these pre-Covid-19 numbers.

‘Overseas’ visitor recovery lagging

Stats SA splits foreign tourist arrivals into different categories:

  1. Total foreign tourist arrivals includes visitors from Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries, the rest of Africa, and the rest of the world.
  2. ‘Overseas visitors’ describes people arriving from destinations other than African countries.

Digging deeper into the figures discloses that rich holidaymakers from abroad have not been returning to SA. The increase in the number of foreign visitors is largely as a result of growth in regional travel.

The majority travel by road, and a big percentage visit SA for less than a day, maybe only to do some shopping (nearly 25% of total foreign tourist arrivals are same-day visitors).

The recovery in visitors arriving from destinations beyond the African continent has lagged.

These visitors arrive mostly by air, mostly from Europe, and spend an average of 14 days in the country

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The figure has increased by 42% over 2022, but is still 30% below 2019. Except for the decline in 2009 (the year of the global financial crisis), the 2023 figure is the lowest in 20 years.

Overseas visitors (from countries outside Africa)

Source: Data collected from Stats SA reports

Other destinations recovering faster

In contrast, tourism to other popular international holiday destinations – such as Portugal, Spain, Italy and France – have recovered to pre-Covid levels, as have visitor numbers to Thailand and Bali.

Tourist numbers for Mexico are ahead of 2019.

Research by global data platform Statistica notes in a recent report that global tourism is still below 2019 levels, and that destinations in Europe have recovered the best.

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“The number of international tourist arrivals worldwide increased in 2023 compared to the previous year,” it says.

“That said, it remained still below the figure reported in 2019, before the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

“After declining to roughly 407 million in the first year of the health crisis, the lowest figure recorded since 1989, global inbound tourist arrivals showed strong signs of recovery in the following years, totalling just under 1.3 billion in 2023.”

This figure is some 12% lower than the high of 1.4 billion travellers worldwide in 2019.

Exchange rate should make SA highly desireable …

That tourists did not return to SA as quickly as to other holiday destinations could cause emotional debates given that the decline in the exchange rate should make SA a cheap destination.

In 2005, an international visitor got R6 to spend in SA for every dollar they brought here. This increased to R7.50 in 2010.

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At the height of the tourist season at the end of 2015, every dollar was worth R14. At the end of 2023 a dollar bought R19.

The same is true for visitors from Europe. A large part of the expense of a holiday in South Africa should have become much cheaper for Europeans as the exchange rate fell from R10 per euro 2010 to R20 in 2023.

This article was republished from Moneyweb. Read the original here

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