Dorine Reinstein
Dorine Reinstein

The drought crisis in Cape Town coupled with warnings about "Day Zero" has had a massive impact on tourism to the South African coastal city last year. According to data released at the African Leaders' Forum, Cape Town lost between 15% and 20% of expected tourist arrivals because of the drought.

Murray Gardiner, CEO at Giltedge Africa, said the impact can still be felt. He explained that while new bookings are up, the number of traveling clients is down for the period of January to April.

"This is because clients that would have traveled during this period either canceled or postponed their trips in 2018 when the Cape Town drought took center stage. So, from a financial prospective we are feeling it now, as it takes over a year to recover from a crisis like this," said Gardiner.

Cape Town Tourism CEO Enver Duminy added that tourism in general is in a period of slow recovery following the drought and recession, and the figures reported are a testament to this. He said the recovery of water supplies in the latter part of 2018, thanks to healthy rainfall and the implementation of additional water supplies, came a little too late to counteract bookings to the city, although December, in general, offered an indication that tourism is on track to becoming a more stable economic environment once again.

Duminy said the city has achieved a turnaround that is remarkable, to the point that conferences on water and sustainability are being hosted in the city, with international delegates wanting to develop a best-practice approach that incorporates some of the cape's initiatives.

"It's always difficult when you're dealing with moments of distress or crisis in any country. But these situations should be seen as opportunities to do better and to really tap into a mindset or consciousness that will allow us to rise above and sometimes eradicate challenges," said Sherwin Banda, president of African Travel Inc.

Banda said that Cape Town has become the gold standard of what sustainability looks like. "It's the first major city to have experienced a water crisis of this magnitude," he said. "Today, the city is on the forefront of innovation. This is as a result of good practices, both locally by citizens and government but also from an international point of view."

Even though the water shortages have ended, Banda said major tourism players in Cape Town have continued to develop innovative ways to manage water, in effect turning the city into the poster child for water conservation. Companies like African Travel Inc. and Lion World Travel and hotels like the Twelve Apostles continue to be conscious of water conservation, he added.

The Twelve Apostles achieved the seemingly impossible and reduced water consumption by 42% from 2017 to 2018 by fitting shower heads with restrictors, converting fresh water hotel swimming pools to salt water, replacing napkins and placemats that need to be washed with biodegradable paper ones and reducing water usage in laundry facilities by 90% through innovative technologies.

Sean Kritzinger, executive chairman at Giltedge Africa, said Cape Town has also commissioned desalination plants; boreholes have been drilled at private homes, guesthouses and hotels; water restrictions have made citizens more water-wise; covers have been fixed on swimming pools; low-flow shower heads installed at hotels and small accommodations establishments; many Capetonians have stopped watering their lawns and planted succulents and indigenous plants for their gardens.

Generally, Kritzinger said, there's been an improved attitude and respect for water as a resource in the city. "We've become smarter and more resilient because of it, and with global warming affecting countries around the world, South Africa is better prepared," he said.

The many initiatives that have taken place to reduce water usage, as well as those still underway, have radically altered South Africans' relationship with this resource, Duminy said. "The efforts have been noted by an international audience, resulting in several conferences being organized in the city on the topic of sustainability. The secretary general of the [United Nations World Tourism Organization] singled us out for our efforts in reducing water usage; how we learned to collaborate during a crisis has become a best-practice case study. There have been multiple campaigns and communication efforts, so collectively, these have ensured that the messaging is brought across to visitors and that water usage is reduced accordingly."

Danny Bryer, area director of sales, marketing and revenue management at Protea Hotels by Marriott, said this recovery is a true reflection of the city's ability to rise above adversity. "In fact, the potential long-term gains that the process has afforded us could also provide vital lessons for other cities, as the world moves increasingly towards the necessary sustainability of our natural resources. This is about more than water; we are a world-renowned travel destination, so sustainability is always going to be a focus in our unique attractions."

The efforts are not only contained to travel industry players: travelers are keen to play their part, as well, according to Banda. "Sustainability is one of the top priorities for travelers, who are keen to support local conservation, whether it is wildlife or saving resources," he said. "The evolution of luxury from consumption of indulgence to the search for meaning means that the vast majority of travelers want meaningful experiences. The overwhelming majority are looking to connect with brands that have a positive effect on the world. Sustainability is their core decision for travel. Cape Town is perfectly poised to tap into this."

On the tourism front, the #NowhereBetter campaign was launched in December 2018 by Wesgro (the official Tourism Trade and Investment Promotion Agency for Cape Town and the Western Cape) in partnership with a number of tourism organizations and suppliers as well as South African private sector players. The campaign seeks to find innovative ways to boost the tourism sector after the drought.

Showcasing the breadth and depth of experiences within the Western Cape, #NowhereBetter is aimed at the U.K., Germany and U.S. markets and has already reached millions of potential visitors. A lot of stakeholders are involved in the campaign, who all agree to adopt a simple, white labeled message that Cape Town is a waterwise destination, open for business and with much to offer.

With phrases including "Where the French come to fall in love" and "Where the English come to drink tea," the campaign adopts a cheeky twist, compelling travelers to visit Cape Town and the Western Cape to experience activities synonymous with other countries because "We just do it better."

Judy Lain,  Wesgro's chief marketing officer for tourism, stated: "The purpose of this campaign is to reignite people's passion in the destination. We need to go back to basics and remind people why we are great and why they need to come  and visit us!"

Figures released by Cape Town's big attractions, Cape Town irport and STR's Destination Report indicate mixed performance for December. The second half of the year has shown that the city's recovery in terms of tourism is stabilizing, notwithstanding a poor performance in the early part of 2018.

Duminy said with regards to tourism figures: "Tourism in general is in a period of slow recovery following the drought and recession, and the figures reported bear this out. The recovery of water supplies in the latter part of 2018 following healthy rainfall and the implementation of additional water supplies came a little too late to counteract bookings to the city, although December, in general, offered an indication that tourism is on track to becoming a more stable economic environment once again."

"I'm very excited about what has been done in South Africa. I'm thrilled that in one year, the city has turned around what could have been a catastrophic event, to being what success looks like," Banda concluded.

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