Covid has had a serious and negative effect on the Tourism industry globally but nowhere as serious as in Southern Africa. I am the Director of two companies in South Africa, Kurt Safari, a large safari operator conducting safaris and tours in Kruger National Park, and Umbhaba Eco lodge a newly rebuilt lodge in Hazyview near the Kruger National Park, which opened just 5 months before the start of Covid19 in March 2020.
The lodge employs around 30 permanent staff and 10 casual staff, Kurt Safari employed around 23 permanent staff and 20 freelance guides prior to March 2020, things were going great, and this came to a standstill overnight.
Kurt Safari was forced to retrench 90% of our guides after 3 months to enable the Guides to claim Unemployment benefits from Government, as we were not sure how long this pandemic would last. This decision was proved to be correct as 2 years later we still have not seen a return to business and now with the new Omicron strain having been discovered by South African scientists, although it is now globally spread. South Africa was locked down to the world together with our neighboring countries, and remain closed for 3 weeks, even though it’s now a global outbreak of this variant. It might take years to recover and business to return to 2018/2019 levels, this has devastating effect on the industry and region.
The Guides and Bus drivers, the Depot staff washing the cars, reservation staff making the bookings, the curio shops not getting business, the restaurant and shop owners in the Tourism towns like Graskop not getting any business. It has affected the waiters and chefs, Barman, their salaries being cut and in many cases no salaries, quite often husbands and wives are both in the tourism or related industries and this obviously has seriously negative complications on the families, kids at school, etc. I know of staff that were refused kids school reports due to not having paid the full years school fees even though there was little or no finances and no help from Government or the schools for those kids and families affected.
Kurt Safari could not just close, and we still employ 12 permanent staff, mainly our management staff that are vital and key to the survival of the business, one cannot afford to lose your management staff and be left with just safari vehicles. Staff are key to any business, it’s greatest asset, and we had to reduce salaries and lucky we had some reserves in order to survive. Things just started to look good until December 2021, when the new Omicron strain emerged and closed us down again, we now wait and try to survive until things stabilize again, and we hope it’s soon as cash flow is almost finished, our staff, retrenched guides and freelance guides and there families are now desperately in need of financial support and getting their lives back to “normal”.
South Africa and the Kruger National Park remains a safe travel destination, most activities are conducted in open safari vehicles, all lodges and tourism venues enforce sanitizing, masks, social distancing when inside buildings and rooms and vehicles are always deep cleaned. We are hoping and praying for the international countries to open and lift the travel bans that are totally biased and make no sense, out staff have all been vaccinated and we are a safe travel destination.
Umbhaba Eco lodge was only running for 5 months prior to Covid pandemic, and the lodge was focused on international travel and tour groups. The lodge has 30 Permanent staff and around 10 casual staff, after having rebuilt in 2019 there was very little cash flow and reserves, and we also had to retrench around 30% of the staff and run-on reduced salaries for the first few months.
The lodge was situated in the perfect position, and we quickly changed the focus from international to local, however the local market prefers self-catering units and TV’S which the lodge does not offer as we catered mainly for the international tour group market. We needed to change our focus locally and we added TV’S to our 16 superior rooms and these rooms are popular and sell well. We also changed our menu that was based on buffets to a la carte and introduced steaks, burgers, pastas, baskets, more affordable meals that are typically standard for the South African market.
The rates were also lowered to attract the South African market and soon people started traveling for weekends, this brought welcome relief but also its own form of problems. We found that local groups, mainly Facebook marketed groups, starting to use the Lodge with groups of 10-20 clients. However, on many occasions the clients arrived under the influence of alcohol, very noisy with loud music and in many cases aggressive towards our management staff. The lodge’s emphases a quite relaxed environment and on nature not noise and music and parties, many clients travel to the Kruger Lowveld to get up before sunrise and go the Kruger National Park. Thus, turning in early and now we had clients wanting and early evening and others wanting huge parties, so another problem to solve! As we needed the business to pay salaries and keep the lodge running but at same time cannot harm the name and future of the business with negative reviews and reports, especially a new lodge.
We raised the rates and tried hard to focus on families and couples that wanted a relaxed weekend away and tightened security and rules and regulations. This worked well and the lodge now does great business especially weekends and we managed to hire back most of our retrenched staff and salaries are back to 100%. However, it’s not sustainable and we urgently need the international travelers back and to have occupancy back 7 days a week. We need clients doing safaris, dinners and wines and staff earning tips, casual staff coming to help when busy and this influences the entire industry, food deliveries, butchers, bakers, laundry services, builders, and not just the direct staff but the industry as a whole.
We as a country region need international travel bans to be cancelled, one has a greater chance of contracting Covid and its mutated versions in Europe rather than in South Africa, the world will also need to live with Covid without closing down economies every few months as its causing a lot of suffering in many lives, far greater then the amount of people that suffer from contacting Covid.