Day Zero -- the day when the water taps in Cape Town will run dry -- is looming for the South African "Mother City," with experts predicting the city will run out of water by April 12.
Western Cape premier Helen Zille's message to South Africans was loud and clear in the past few weeks. She told journalists at a press conference: "We are past the point of no return. Day Zero is almost unavoidable. We will run out of water by the end of April unless everyone reduces their water usage to less than 50 litres per person per day."
Officials are quick to point out that the tourism experience in Cape Town has not been significantly affected by the water shortage yet. Enver Duminy, CEO, Cape Town Tourism, said: "As it stands, visitors are able to enjoy the travel experience within the city, and the major attractions have all put water management initiatives in place."
What can travelers expect?
Duminy explained there are certain measures that have been rolled out across the city, such as some swimming pools and saunas being closed, taps being turned off to be replaced with hand sanitizers and irrigation of gardens being limited to those establishments that happen to have access to natural spring water or gray (nonpotable) water.
Travelers can expect to find extensive messaging in hotels regarding the water shortages and should be prepared for practical measures the hospitality industry has taken, such as removing bathtub drain stoppers and encouraging guests to take two-minute showers as well as reducing laundry routines.
Duminy noted there are numerous examples of water savings conducted by the tourism industry in Cape Town.
The Vineyard Hotel in Cape Town has spent 5 million rand (more than $400,000) on water-saving initiatives over the past five years, while Tsogo Sun has removed drain stoppers and installed water restrictors on all shower heads at hotels in its group.
Cape Town's V&A Waterfront recently announced that they would provide the land for a new desalination plant for free. This tourism attraction also identified air conditioning as by far the biggest consumer of water, and they've reduced consumption by using sea water to do their air conditioning.
Cape Point, the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, Groot Constantia and the Robben Island Museum have all found ways of saving water and have been doing so for years.
Airbnb is informing hosts and guests using the platform in the Cape Peninsula about the water restrictions and encourages its community to take tips from local authorities to help guide them to use water sparingly.
No impact on tourism. Yet.
So far, the drought has not had a major impact on tourism. Martin Jansen van Vuuren, director of business management consultancy Grant Thornton Cape Town, explained that feedback from the industry has been that they have not experienced a drop in tourism numbers, with travelers saying they understand the situation.
U.S. travel agents and tour operators concur. Marguerite Smit, Travel Beyond consultant, said the company has received multiple phone calls from clients raising concerns about the effect of the water crisis on their upcoming trips.
However, once travelers understand the impact is limited to having showers with low-pressure shower heads, that they won' be able to take baths and won't receive glasses of water at restaurants unless ordered, their minds are put at ease.
Said Smit: "I have seen an increase in requests for South Africa. As an Africa Consultant and fellow South African, I am happy to hear that clients are considering the ecological footprint of their trip and that they are in fact more conscious of the environmental impact on the places they visit."
She added that although the situation does have consequences, the shortage isn't something that should deter guests from visiting Cape Town. "The benefit of your presence far outweighs the drawbacks in terms of the water you'll use over the course of your stay."
Henk Graaff, managing director at SW Africa, agreed and said it's important that travelers have a clear idea of what to expect (and how they can help) when they arrive. He says: "You won't be able to have a 10-minute leisurely shower or take an invigorating swim in a swimming pool at many of the hotels in Cape Town. However, these are just minor drawbacks in what will still be one of the most memorable experiences you'll ever have."
Judy Lain, chief marketing officer for Wesgro, the official tourism, trade and investment promotion agency for Cape Town and the western cape, explained that based on interviews Wesgro has conducted with tourists in Cape Town it is clear that the vast majority of tourists are acutely aware of the challenges presented to the region based on the water crisis. She said: "Tourists are also more likely to abide by requests for water-wise behaviur since they only spend a relatively short period in the region, with 11 nights on average."
Tony Romer-Lee, chairperson of the Southern Africa Tourism Services
Association, which oversees the various tourism interests (operators,
hotels, etc.) in South Africa, is recommending that members take steps
to reduce the risk for visitors.
"Whilst there is still a Day Zero projection in place, if a traveler
wants to cancel their holiday that has a Cape Town component due to
concerns related to Day Zero, all cancellation fees for all services
contained in the itinerary -- not just the Cape Town portion -- should
be waived if the traveler is willing to rebook their holiday to a travel
date within 18 months," Romer-Lee said. "Should there be a
nonrefundable deposit in place, the deposit will be transferred without
penalty to the new booking, which would either need to be made at the
time of cancellation or held for a future booking to be made before the
end of 2019."
What will happen on April 12?
Although tourists have been understanding of the situation so far, Van Vuuren warns that this might change when the city reaches Day Zero. "Tourism numbers may drop in the coming months if we reach Day Zero. Tourists have various options of destinations they could visit, and some would choose to visit other destinations that do not experience water shortage."
Jim Holden, president Holden Safaris, agreed, saying: "When we tell travelers that they won't be allowed to take baths, it is of no significance, assuming they will still be able to take showers. If the situation develops to a point of rationed water for hand basins and toilets, the reaction will be more significant."
Holden added that the moment the media starts to report that the situation is dire and local people are suffering due to lack of drinking water, it will become a deterrent. He said: "Travelers prefer to visit places with a happy vibe where the local people are not suffering."
However, industry players point out that even when the Cape Town region runs dry, water to the Cape Town central business district (CBD) will not be switched off in order to keep the local economy going.
Said Van Vuuren: "This would be good news for the many hotels located in the Cape Town CBD. Hotels outside of the CBD would need to make alternative arrangements, such as trucking in water. Many hotels have water tanks, which could be used to store this water and provide an uninterrupted service to tourists. Hotels without water tanks may set up temporary water tanks and truck in water."
Even though water will likely be available to tourists at all times, industry players are urging travelers to do their bit and help the city save water. Said Duminy: "It's critical that everyone does their utmost to save water at all times."
Wesgro's Lain agreed, saying she would urge travelers to "live like a local" and treat the scarce water resources with the utmost respect. She added that Day Zero is simply a projected date that is entirely dependent on current rates of water consumption. "If all stakeholders adhere to the required water savings target, Day Zero can be avoided!" she said.