Sports tours and tournaments remain cancelled, and those which do go ahead play in empty stadiums without fans. For South Africa’s tourism sector last year, it has been a losing game.
AS THE SUN BEAT DOWN ON THEIR REDDENING skin, the thousands of England fans packed into Newlands Cricket Ground broke into song.
“We get R18 to the Pound, R18 to the Pound!” they bellowed, taunting the home faithful as the beer flowed and the lips loosened.
The Newlands New Year test is one of the great experiences in South African sport, and is comfortably the most well-supported five- day fixture in the country.
World-class cricketers and a stunning backdrop are not all that attract fans – particularly from overseas – but also a chance to experience all of the varied delights of the Mother City, Cape Town, at a much more palatable cost than many of the world’s other leading destinations.
The slip in the Rand is bad news for locals, who have seen their cost of living spike, but for visitors to the country, particularly sports fans, it is an added sweetener when you can enjoy outstanding food, many drinks and a heady night on the town for what you may pay for a mediocre pub meal and a taxi fare in London.
According to South African Tourism’s official report for 2019, the sector added R125 billion ($8 billion) in spend to South Africa’s coffers, with R81.2 billion ($5.2 billion) of that from international visitors. They stayed on average 11.4 days in the country for a total of 112 million bed nights.
There were 10.2 million international arrivals into the country in 2019, most from the rest of Africa, but around R2.6 million of those from outside of the continent.
It has been steady year-on-year growth, but it is now obvious that the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has hit tourism hard the lack of spectators at sports events.
“A game of soccer lasts 90 minutes, but it is what happens around that game that is important to us,” SA Tourism CEO Sisa Ntshona tells FORBES AFRICA in a sobering assessment of the state of play.
“We have seen the PSL [local Premier Soccer League] is back up and running here in South Africa, but because crowds are not yet allowed in stadiums, we are not seeing the movement of fans to different cities.
“For example, for big matches, there would be a large number of fans who would travel from Johannesburg to Durban. That alone provides a sizeable boost to the local tourism sector.”
For a cup final outside of Gauteng involving Soweto giants Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates, you may find 30,000- 40,000 people will travel to Durban, Polokwane, Nelspruit or even as far as Port Elizabeth within South African provinces.
It is these types of events that, as well as international cricket and rugby tours, that drive the sports tourism market, along with recreational golf, and schools and university events, all of which are on hold.
“There is not the budget any longer for the so-called big- ticket events like the Soccer World Cup and the Olympics, so our challenge is how to fill the calendar with smaller events, but lots of them,” Ntshona admits.
But there are green shoots amid the gloom. What South across all sectors, especially the sports environment with tours and tournaments canceled, and those which do go ahead played in empty stadiums without fans.
Teams might bemoan the lost gate revenue and match-day income from merchandise and catering sales, but the economic impact runs much deeper than that.
Empty hotels and restaurants around the venues that would usually be brimming with guests, other tourist attractions that enjoy a place on a sports travelers’ itinerary, shops, and even taxi drivers all suffer from
Africa in particular does have is a world in one country, such a vast and varied variety of options that make it appealing.
Because with sports tourism, according to Ntshona, where the events are held is of vital significance.
“The destination is very important. If someone is invited to a
golf tour, they will check where it is first. They want to know the destination is part of the experience, because the playing of the sport, or the match you are watching, is only part of it.
“For example, if someone is coming to Cape Town to run a marathon, we want them to bring the whole family, because that is when we see the true benefit from a tourism perspective.
“So it is about creating that ‘destination’ which will make people want to do that, and in South Africa, we have a lot to offer.
“You could start on the Highveld, go to Durban, on to Bloemfontein and Kimberley, and finally Cape Town, and all of those experiences will be different and have something unique to offer.”
SA Tourism has 12 offices around the world that actively market the country, including from a sports perspective.
The Cape Town marathon is a prime example of what they are trying to achieve across many similar events, where they lobby organizers for precious entrance forms to be able to draw runners from all over the world.
The theory is those taking part will largely not come on their own, and just for the race, but rather bring their family to make a holiday out of it.
So 1,000 entrance forms to the Cape Town marathon could turn into at least 4,000 visitors.
With domestic travel, car hire, accommodation and attending attractions and events, or just shopping and eating out, that could easily result in an average spend of R4,000 ($257) per day.
And if those visitors stayed on average the 12 days that is the statistical norm, that turns into a tourism spend of almost R50 million ($3.2 million) from the single event.
But the reality is this is a market that has been decimated by Covid-19, with a global recession on the horizon and fears around travel, which is now both expensive and comes with potentially greater risk of infection.
The next big test for South Africa is the British & Irish Lions series in July-August 2021, where some 30,000 fans, at a minimum, are expected to travel from the United Kingdom and other parts of the world.
The tour itself is five weeks, and while most fans will come for part of it, likely the last two weeks that feature the test matches against the world champion Springboks, it is a potentially huge money-spinner for South African Rugby and Brand South Africa.
But with a second wave of Covid-19 having hit Europe and the potential for one in South Africa during the build-up to the winter months, whether fans will be able to travel, or will come en masse, remains to be seen.
“The Lions tour will go ahead, it is just in what form it takes, from full stadiums to the prospect of restrictions on the number of people in the stadiums. That is something that we cannot say. The situation is very fluid,” Ntshona says.
“We have learned a lot already through the Cocid-19 pandemic. And we continue to learn by monitoring the situation in Europe. They have shown us what to do, and maybe what not to do …”
President Cyril Ramaphosa has told the South African tourism sector that he would like to see 21 million annual international arrivals in the country by 2030, a tall order that would mean a doubling of the current number.
Sports tours, either to watch a favorite team or to take part as a competitor, will have to play a big role in reaching that number, and will be a major focus for SA Tourism once the global picture around Covid-19 clears.
But just hosting sports events in the country and beaming them around the world can build confidence among an overseas audience.
For now, that will have to be the major focus.
–BY NICK SAID