South Africa’s tourism industry is well on its way to a full recovery, with the number of overseas travellers in 2023 breaching the two-million mark – an increase of 42% over the number in 2022, but still below the figure of 2.6 million recorded in 2019 (pre-Covid).
Global tourism has recovered well from the negative impact of Covid lockdowns and South Africa is no exception, with the recovery rate standing at 79% of pre-Covid arrivals from overseas – marginally lower than the global average.
The first year of the global health crisis saw global tourist arrivals plummet to 407 million, a decline of 72% and the lowest figure recorded in three decades. In 2021, the second year of extensive lockdown regulations imposed by virtually all countries, a marginal recovery occurred, but the industry sprang back to life the following year, with global tourism arrivals doubling to just below the one-billion mark.
Last year also witnessed stellar growth of 34%, taking the total number of travellers to 1.29 billion, but still below the record of 1.46 billion recorded in 2019 – the year before the Covid pandemic struck.
Since 2005, Europe has maintained its number one position for the global region attracting the highest number of international tourists. Europe also continues to dominate the South African tourism industry in terms of overseas arrivals, accounting for 64% of the total. Combined with North America, these two regions were responsible for more than 82% of all tourist arrivals from overseas in 2023.
Figure 1 illustrates the regional composition of overseas tourist arrivals to South Africa in December 2023, confirming the importance of maintaining sound relations with countries in these regions, who share, to a large extent, the same fundamental governance principles related to democracy and free enterprise.
In combination, three countries (the UK, the US and Germany) were responsible for more than 46% of all overseas tourist arrivals to South Africa in 2023. Figure 2 illustrates the strong growth in tourist arrivals from South Africa’s top-ten source countries between 2022 and 2023, with several of them recording growth rates of above 50%. The top-three countries have also performed well, but, due mainly to the effect of a high base in 2022, are lagging in terms of growth.
The imminent further recovery of tourism bodes well for the prospects of higher economic growth in 2024, as the sector possesses a pervasive value chain with other economic sectors, most notably accommodation, restaurants, transportation, and retail trade in clothing, ornaments, and artefacts.
Scrutiny and further analysis of the latest Tourism Satellite Account published by Statistics SA reveals the economic importance of tourism, with the sector having been responsible for almost 4% of GDP in 2019, a solid increase from the ratio of 2.6% in 2017.
The average spending of tourists visiting South Africa via air travel is estimated at around R40,000 per person and the industry was responsible for almost half-a-million jobs in 2021, despite the negative impact of the Covid pandemic. With a bit of luck, this figure will eventually recover to above the level of 777,000 recorded in 2019.