Cape Town hotels hurt by Day Zero campaign

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The One&Only Cape Town has reduced water usage by 40% and encouraged guests to "Save Like a Local" to help conserve water.
The One&Only Cape Town has reduced water usage by 40% and encouraged guests to "Save Like a Local" to help conserve water.

Cape Town hotels say that the negative media coverage surrounding the Day Zero water-saving campaign has contributed to a drop of between 30% and 50% in bookings this year.

In January, the city warned it would run out of water by April 12 -- and termed it Day Zero -- unless drastic conservation tactics were followed. Later, following February rains and evidence the conservation campaign was working, Day Zero was pushed back to 2019.

Debra Algie, executive manager of sales and marketing at the One&Only Cape Town, said the campaign had the unintended consequence of scaring away tourists.

"Effectively, Day Zero was a campaign with an awfully chosen name to focus on forcing the Cape Town community to conserve water," she said. "It has been very successful but has had a negative impact, as well."

The most dire headlines ran in January, the peak booking period for South Africa, and the Day Zero delay happened too late for hotels and tour operators.

At the One&Only Cape Town, bookings in April were down about 10% to 15%, but that is not as high as the drop at most hotels. Algie said that properties catering to meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions groups were more negatively affected than ones that, like the One&Only, cater to leisure travelers.

A survey of 18 hotels and tour operators in Cape Town by Wesgro, the city's official tourism promotion agency, found that forward bookings between April and September are down 30% to 50% and that January and February revenue declined 10% to 15%. The source markets most impacted were the U.K., Germany and the U.S.

Algie was in the U.S. recently, meeting with travel agents, tour operators and the media to make sure they understood the reality on the ground in Cape Town, which is that while hotels have drastically reduced water usage -- by 40% year over year at the One&Only, which also encourages guests to "Save Like a Local" -- no guest is being negatively affected, she said.

Algie said the city needs tourism because visitors make up just 1% to 3% of the population even in peak season, but they deliver $3 billion a year to the economy.

"When the news broke in January," Algie said, "visitor concerns started with, 'Are we going to have water?' and shifted to the social impact: 'Do Capetonians want us to be there?' From an economic point of view, tourists are a vital necessity. Not having tourists in Cape Town affects the people you want to help."

There is hope now among travel suppliers that as the Day Zero headlines fade, so will people's hesitancy to visit Cape Town. Americans typically travel during the U.S. summer to South Africa, and so far, Algie said, "July and August are tracking well."

Several U.S. travel agents also said they had not experienced a booking dip.

"While we did have booked clients who would be visiting Cape Town who expressed concern, we did not experience any cancellations or clients who altered their travel plans to avoid visiting Cape Town," said Brian Sanchez of Journeys Travel Group in Menomonee Falls, Wis. He added that none of the operators he works with have canceled tours there. "Our future bookings and inquiries are steady and unchanged."

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