It's been a year since that fateful day when we prepared to shut down Cape Town International Airport. I remember it vividly. There was a lot of work behind the scenes to shut down such a big piece of machinery. On peak days Cape Town International airport processed nearly 30 000 passengers and airlines would uplift as much as 2.4 million litres of jet fuel a day - it's a complex operation.
Airports are vibrant spaces, where everything feels alive. On that last day, I remember standing with the manager of Celini as Woolworths closed its doors. At the time, I didn’t realise I’d just bought my last airport cappuccino for many months to come.
In some ways, the shutdown of the airport was busier than ever. While retail spaces emptied, hordes of people queued in the departures area. The energy was incredibly tense. At that point, many people didn’t know what was happening and there was little understanding of the virus and its spread. People were anxious to leave - desperately scrambling to leave the city to get back to their homes, places of employment and loved ones – the airlines pulled out all of the stops to help as many passengers as possible.
Although the airport officially closed, processing departing passengers didn’t come to an immediate halt. We still processed thousands of people on repatriation flights for many months.In the blink of an eye, everything changed
. No one has been immune to the impact of this disease. Many have lost loved ones. Doors have closed for so many businesses, some permanently. We couldn’t have predicted the entirety of the devastating impact on tourism ‒ and across all industries. The tourism industry has been brought to its knees.
Cape Town Tourism’s most recent impact report highlights this. Among its members alone, there has been a total loss of R2bn and just under 12,000 jobs from the end of December to the beginning of this year - a period that is traditionally high season in the Mother City. More than half of these businesses said that they’d be able to keep the doors open for less than three months if harsher restrictions return.
This is after cutting just over 11,500 jobs between them. 68% of these businesses say they are now heavily reliant on the domestic market, while 57% signalled that they desperately need the international visitor in order to sustain their business. But the movement of the international track is minimal – in fact, recovery in aviation has been slow. This affirms the importance of Air Access.
Initiatives like the Cape Town Air Access, a division of Wesgro, is integral to our recovery. We know that with every direct and indirect regularly scheduled long haul service 3,000 more jobs are created and a 10% rise in passenger volumes would result in 2% regional job growth. Air access has never been as important as it is now, as is the role that Cape Town Tourism plays. This, and the City of Cape Town and Cape Town Tourism’s comprehensive Tourism Bounce Back plan, will be key to the recovery of the industry and ultimately the economy.This year has widely been dubbed as the "year of the vaccine"
As the world slowly re-opens, vaccine programmes are rolled out globally and travellers begin to gain confidence, we look to the future and how to implement urgent recovery. In my view, returning Cape Town to its former glory all comes down to connectivity. We have to keep our city connected to the world through air access. We have to show travellers how connected our city is and encourage them to visit for work and play. We have to connect, across all tourism businesses to form a united approach in rebuilding the industry.
In stark contrast to lockdown, tourism relies on the movement of people. Our city is especially reliant on the international market. Our key markets include Germany, the United Kingdom, France, the United States, Italy and the Netherlands - fortunately, vaccine rollouts are well underway in many of these countries which is critical to the future of tourism. Once people are vaccinated, they will become more confident to travel again. Successful vaccination rollout will become a marker for destinations of choice.
Future travel trend predictions indicate that travellers will want nature and wide-open spaces, accommodation offerings other than just traditional hotels, luxury and bespoke tour offerings, and access to other travel opportunities from a central destination. Cape Town has all of this in abundance. Digital nomads too would find themselves happily at home here.
Many people have changed roles through the pandemic. Recently, I myself took voluntary retrenchment ‒ leaving the airport after just over 17 years. Life has changed for so many people, but now we all have a role to play in repairing the devastation. I feel optimistic. Despite the doom and gloom of the last year, things are looking up and we need to rally and do our part so our city and country can rise to its former glory.