01 October 2021

The objective in the study was to examine enterprise adaptation in a nature tourism destination in South Africa that is concentrated on the market of high-end international tourism. It is revealed that adaptation to the crisis has been challenging because of the financial impacts experienced by these enterprises in the wake of minimal government support.

The case study area of Bushbuckridge has been described as a complex and sensitive environment of human settlement, commercial agriculture and nature reserves. The area is geographically distant from South Africa’s major metropolitan areas but close to Kruger National Park, one of the country’s most iconic tourist attractions for nature-based tourism. The region hosts several game reserves and nature-based tourism conservation projects. Since democratic transition in 1994, tourism has vastly increased with over 30 new safari lodges which opened in the area during the first decade of political change. The tourism sector thus became the lifeblood of the local economy.

As is the case for the tourism sector in South Africa as a whole, tourism in Bushbuckridge and its surrounds has been severely impacted by the pandemic. In interrogating tourism businesses responses to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic a qualitative approach was adopted with semi-structured interviews undertaken with a cross-section of 20 key private sector tourism product owners. Many businesses were contacted to participate in the study. The respondents were selected based on their availability as well as taking into consideration a cross-section of different relevant business types in the area.

Impact of COVID-19

The overall impact of the pandemic from the perspective of the Bushbuckridge cluster of respondents was overwhelmingly negative. In general, there was a clear sense of the severity of the impact of the pandemic on these businesses across the board. In the Bushbuckridge area the debilitating impact of the pandemic was exacerbated by the fact that most businesses are dominated by international tourists rather than the domestic market.

Of the 20 interviewees only two had a majority share of domestic tourists, namely a wildlife interaction centre and a tour guide/operator out of Bushbuckridge, who mostly takes local tourists to neighbouring countries. Among the remaining businesses, a significant proportion had upwards of 90% of their market share from international tourists.

Another six enterprises said international tourists accounted for more than 80% of their clients while the remaining six businesses stated that international tourists accounted for between 60% and 80% of the clientele. Respondents were probed about their perceptions of government regulations during the pandemic. All but two enterprises stated that the government had negatively impacted their businesses, while one said there were some positives albeit it was mostly negative.

One of the most significant problems mentioned by the majority of Bushbuckridge businesses, was the travel ban because of the area’s orientation towards the high-end international tourist market. Most enterprises were significantly impacted by the international travel ban as nearly all businesses are overwhelmingly reliant on the international market. The interprovincial travel bans were also critical as the majority of domestic tourists to the area come from Gauteng.


Enterprise adaptive responses

The Bushbuckridge tourism enterprise respondents were questioned about their adaptation strategies as a result of the pandemic, specifically the need to change or adjust their offerings, both in light of the pandemic and re-orienting their products towards the domestic tourism market. The primary adaptation strategy among businesses has been to reduce prices. The extent to which this was done varied based on the products offered.

Many Bushbuckridge respondents indicated that staffing has been a major issue, as they have had to cut staff or at least decrease hours of remaining staff members. Staff reductions are not only a result of the long closures during the various stages of lockdowns, but also due to the pressure to decrease prices. This was noted primarily by the lodges and up-scale game reserves. Given the price reductions, these enterprises are barely able to survive, yet alone produce profit, a situation that inevitably has caused many reductions in staff salaries or retrenchments.

A further business challenge highlighted by several of the lodges is the seasonality of the domestic tourism market. South African domestic tourism consists of sets of travellers: weekend visitors from South Africa’s economic heartland, Gauteng province, and visitors during holiday periods (most notably school holidays).

A few businesses, however, specifically noted an increase in the Black South African tourism market, one which had not been as prevalent in previous years. Potential significant opportunities were identified in particular subsectors of this market. “A big market we've noticed is single Black women travelling in groups”.

Other enterprises expressed appreciation of the domestic market due to their role in sustaining the businesses during the pandemic. Several indicated that they had not thought about marketing to domestic tourists before but would continue to do so in future. For most enterprises, however, it appears that re-orienting completely towards a South African market was financially unsustainable in the long term.

Many enterprises indicated a key adaptation response was business downsizing. The majority of respondents cited downsizing related to staffing. Several had to cut major portions of their staff, while many others have staff operating on part-time salaries.

Questions about support interventions and government assistance elicited mixed responses especially in terms of the future of these businesses, what sort of support and interventions businesses would require in order to simply to survive and also in re-orienting towards the domestic market.

There was a general consensus that the local tourism industry is being over-looked by government in terms of support.


Future business prospects and government intervention

Some businesses provided broad answers on what would be helpful forms of support, the most prominent of which related to a need for direct financial assistance. In terms of intervention from local government, the majority of responses indicated the need for breaks on rates and taxes, where applicable, and an increase in local marketing. Many respondents, however, felt that local government has little authority or capacity to do much that would actually help tourism businesses.

The biggest local concern among nearly all respondents in the area was with the quality of the roads. Although they were asked about infrastructure assistance in the context of national government support, there was a clear consensus among all businesses that the state of the roads in the area was problematic. This issue has been exacerbated by recent excessive rains, coupled with the impact from tropical storm Eloise, which hit the area in early 2021. However, once again, there was little faith in local government to rectify these issues.

Another support intervention identified as essential by several businesses related to government and marketing. The sentiment arose that SA Tourism - the national marketing agency - has not been proactive in their marketing strategies.

“South Africa is a good place to travel for COVID-19 [but] SA Tourism have done nothing to show how compliant South Africa is and that the actual rates are much lower than the rest of the world”.

Although they are grateful for the domestic market, the quantity and costs of these operations simply will not survive without the international market. “We need better marketing of the success of South Africa's response to COVID. We need to tell the rest of the world. We need to demonstrate that a lot of the activities are "COVID friendly", we're reducing the number of passengers on game drives, etc.”.

In terms of support from national government beyond infrastructure and marketing, the primary request among these businesses was financial relief, in one way or another. To further this point, when asked about which support or intervention would be the most important in the short-term (the next 12 months) nearly all businesses stated that financial assistance or relief is, by far, the most important support needed in the short-term, in order for them simply to keep afloat. Without support, many tourism employees are having their salaries cut significantly or otherwise have been retrenched.

In light of the current situation, and a discussion about potential support and interventions, respondents were asked what they felt were their prospects for the next 12 months without any support or interventions. Overall, the responses were not promising for the local tourism economy. One safari tour respondent said that they had already decided to close their business. Out of the 20 businesses, only four confidently, feel that they will survive the year without support.

This said, there was a strong sentiment from many respondents about the necessity for the survival of tourism in the area. Safari tourism and that linked to Kruger National Park is considered some of the most iconic in the country. As one respondent stated: "Without support more and more places will close down. Game Reserves can't fail. They are part of the South African psyche".

It was argued that by emphasizing the importance of tourism in the South African economy: "I know this is a pandemic, it's serious, but we need to save what we can. Use the money towards businesses that will save South Africa. Tourism is one of them”.

In conclusion, the crisis precipitated by COVID-19 is unprecedented in relation to past crises that have impacted tourism such as those from natural disasters or terrorism. The pandemic is observed to have global and deeper consequences with the potential for massive changes in the organization and architecture of tourism systems. For some observers it is critical for tourism as a complex adaptive system to continue to respond, adjust, and adapt.

The enterprise adaptive responses have included staff reductions and wage cuts, adjustments towards the domestic market through price cutting, changes in marketing as well as adjusted tourism product offerings towards an emerging Black middle class domestic market. Of critical significance is the finding that these adaptive measures cannot replace the revenues formerly generated from the international tourism market.

Seemingly, without a change in government policy and the offer of direct government financial support there is a danger that in the short term the tourism product base will be diminished as many lodges and other tourism businesses are in danger of permanent closure. Due to the significance of tourism for the local economy, and particularly for employment among many community members, the implications of closure of a significant proportion of businesses is devastating for the region. The results demonstrate some potential adaptation strategies but more work is needed to understand the long-term potential of these strategies to sustain businesses.

The perspectives of domestic leisure tourists in South Africa would assist in gaining a better understanding of the potential for domestic tourism to maintain the local tourism economy as the pandemic persists. Although significant, this data is clearly limited in its scope and would benefit from additional research going forward both on the impacts of the pandemic on the local economy more broadly but also future research on the state of these businesses within the next year.

@ This is a summary of the study: Nature-based Tourism Enterprise Adaptive Responses to COVID-19 in South Africa by Dr Julia Giddy (UMP) and Professor Jayne Rogerson (UJ).  

Pictures Supplied.