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South Africa’s level 1 will kick-start tourism recovery – Tsogo Sun CEO

By Xolisa Phillip, in Johannesburg
Posted on Friday, 25 September 2020 11:29

A couple walk along the beach in Durban, South Africa, Tso Sun group is keen to reopen its resorts in Durban. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

Tsogo Sun group has had a mixed experience on the continent amid COVID-19, while South Africa’s move to level 1 has sparked demand from German tourists, says CEO Marcel von Aulock.

Tsogo is the continent’s leading hospitality group with operations in South Africa, Mozambique, Nigeria, Tanzania, Zambia, the Seychelles and the United Aran Emirates (UAE).

From 1 October, South Africa will permit limited inbound and outbound international travel.

The COVID-19 experience has been different in each of the countries where the group has a presence, Von Aulock tells The Africa Report.

  • Mozambique has traded all the way through. “We’ve run well at our Southern Sun Maputo. We’ve had a lot of repatriation business. The oil and gas business has been trading there. Mozambique never closed.”
  • Lagos closed. Nigeria went into a lockdown, “which is interesting because they never closed Lagos when they had Ebola.” “They opened on 1 September, and we are starting to see air traffic back into Lagos. So Lagos is up and trading.”
  • Tanzania remains closed. “There’s no demand there.”
  • The Zambian capital Lusaka remains closed. “Lusaka is dependent on South Africa opening its borders. A lot of airlift and travel into Lusaka is from South Africa. You might find now with this 1 October opening Lusaka starts getting some traction.
  • The Seychelles remains closed. “They’re not letting any tourists into the island. It’s only when they … [open] their borders … we will be able to start trading there again.”

The UAE remained open. “Our hotel is in Abu Dhabi – it’s been fine,” says Von Aulock.

Lobbying pays off

And then there is South Africa, the listed group’s biggest market. Main regions are Durban, Johannesburg and Cape Town. In addition, the Tsogo group has a presence in all nine of the country’s provinces.

South Africa moved to level 1 on 20 September. Limited inbound and outbound international travel will be allowed from 1 October. That will be from three major airports: OR Tambo in Gauteng; Cape Town International in the Western Cape; and King Shaka in KwaZulu-Natal.

READ MORE Coronavirus: South Africa to ease lockdown to level 4 as of 1 May says Ramaphosa

The country entered level-5 lockdown in mid-March. The government has since gradually revised down the lockdown levels, with each successive stage coming with an easing of restrictions – be it on domestic travel or the sale of alcohol.

Tourism has been one of the worst-affected sectors by the coronavirus-induced lockdown. Industry responded by devising safety protocols and lobbying the government.

READ MORE South Africa VS Coronavirus: Billions already lost in tourism

“We were instrumental, together with TBCSA [Tourism Business Council South Africa], in writing the protocols. We are confident that our policies and procedures are running safely,” says Von Aulock. “Touch wood, we haven’t had problems,” he adds.

The industry had to do a lot of work and lobbying to got to where it is now.

“Credit to the TBCSA and CEO Tshifhiwa [Tshivhengwa]. He did a spectacular job. A lot of our lobbying was done through that forum.  We are delighted we’re at least this far,” enthuses Von Aulock.

Regional outlook

Durban, in KwaZulu-Natal on South Africa’s sunny east coast, which enjoys subtropical weather, is Tsogo’s strongest region. It is a self-sustaining market that relies on local support. It has the added advantage that it is a six-hour drive from Johannesburg and other hubs.

Tsogo has nearly 2,000 rooms on the Durban beachfront. “We won’t open everything in the immediate term, but we are hoping by December that all the hotels will be open,” says the Tsogo Sun CEO.

In Johannesburg, business activity has been good, but Cape Town is going to be the toughest market.

“The infrastructure in Cape Town is built for the international traveller. If you don’t have a strong foreign presence, your local market isn’t big enough to support the volume of rooms in Cape Town,” explains Von Aulock.

Well-timed opening

October through to March is an important period for South Africa’s tourism. So level 1 has arrived at an ideal time. “If we were under restrictions, it would have been a real hard blow for the industry,” he says.

The forward bookings coming in thus far show there is pent-up demand – domestically and from some key source markets such as Germany. “Our understanding is that there is big demand from the German market to travel back to South Africa,” says Von Aulock.

Although Von Aulock does not expect millions of foreign tourists coming into the country from 1 October, he believes opening up will help the process of recovery.

“If you delay by another month, you’re delaying any recovery by another month. We are delighted to open,” he adds.

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