The global pandemic has had a powerful impact on tourism and hospitality. How has the world responded? And how has our local industry reacted to stay afloat, while still practicing responsible tourism?

In the year since lockdown began, the city of Cape Town, like the rest of the South Africa and the world, has experienced the effects of Covid-19. With travel and hospitality restrictions in place, tourism has been hard hit. Cape Town has been especially adversely affected, since tourism and related businesses make up such a large part of its economy. Responsible Tourism, now more than ever, takes on an added meaning.

To its credit, the tourism industry has responded swiftly and responsibly to many of the challenges.One of the first responses has been shifting the focus to local tourism, and offering attractive pricing.

Around the world, tourism and hospitality businesses have shifted their focus to attract locals, by encouraging local leisure travel and sightseeing, and inviting people to explore their own city, region or country. It’s become popular in South Africa, too. Discounted prices have attracted locals who are taking advantage of attractions and holiday stays closer to home.

Australia and Vietnam are two examples of how tourism has adapted. In Australia, locals have made an effort to travel and shop locally. Council of Small Business Organisations Australia CEO Peter Strong says this loyalty has helped to keep local businesses afloat and maintain the diversity of communities – an important aspect of Responsible Tourism. From hotels and spas to restaurants and breweries, there are stories of businesses that have survived thanks to support from locals. The Western Australia “Stay, Play and Save” campaign, for example, has offered discounts on hotel accommodation to help hard-hit hotels across Perth and the Swan Valley.

Vietnam, a country that usually attracts millions of foreign visitors, responded promptly to the tourism challenge presented by the pandemic. The country’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism launched a programme to attract domestic tourists, with tourism discounts, preferential prices and incentive packages.

The South African approach has also focused on locals, and lower prices. In Cape Town, businesses received assistance from the Cape Town Tourism Board Development Fund. The aim was to boost tourism-related businesses in the city and help SMMEs. Worthy recipients receive a cash-injection for their business, as well as specialised mentorship and marketing support.

Hospitality businesses have also shifted their focus to locals, with discounts and specials on accommodation, lower entrance fees at tourism attractions and other incentives to encourage local support. As travel restrictions hit, backpacker establishments began renting rooms long-term to locals. Game lodges, hotels, guesthouses and B&B’s began offering significant discounts, many at properties that were previously occupied by overseas visitors.

In another act of Responsible Tourism, Cape Town Tourism launched a campaign, The Pocket-Friendly Challenge, to promote local tourism: a series short videos, depicting travellers who explore Cape Town’s neighbourhoods with a budget of R150 per person.

What about environmental sustainability? How do we lessen the impact of tourism on the environment? Responsible tourism means minimising our carbon footprint, and while the pandemic has resulted in lower carbon emissions, a new environmental threat has emerged: disposable surgical masks. They’re convenient, especially while traveling, but millions end up in the sea, posing a threat to marine life and ecology. Some animals become trapped in the elastic straps, or accidentally ingest masks.

We need to make sure that we dispose of these masks, and other protective equipment, responsibly, safely and hygienically: Disposable mask users have been advised to cut the straps of masks before discarding them in a sealed bin. This is good advice, but ultimately, washable, reusable cloth masks are a more environmentally responsible option.

Pandemic or not, it is essential to make an effort to protect the environment when we travel, because Responsible Tourism involves minimising our carbon footprint. Decreased air travel in the last year has already succeeded in doing this, but when at one’s destination, one should limit car travel by exploring a neighbourhood in what so many travellers say is the best way: on foot. There’s also the benefit of saving on cabs and getting good exercise.

Reusable water bottles are another way to be a more responsible traveller. The use of bottled water has resulted in massive, unconscionable waste that poses a global ecological threat. Travellers who don’t like or trust tap water have the option of a water purifier bottle or a personal (portable) filter. There is no excuse for single use water bottles.

On the subject of water, it’s worth remembering the recent droughts our country has faced, and that conserving our water is still essential to sustainable tourism, even when dams are full. Respect for our natural resources is part of responsible tourism. The hospitality industry felt the effect during the 2018 drought, when many foreign visitors avoided Cape Town, fearing a Day Zero situation, or at least the inconvenience of harsh restrictions.

Hotels, resorts and restaurants took a variety of water-wise measures. Some adopted several water-saving and other sustainability initiatives, like ensuring that certain properties became solely reliant on borehole water, as well as initiating grey water reclamation and recycling solutions, installing toilets with full and half flush options and bathrooms with low-flow showerheads and taps. Many establishments now use energy-saving bulbs and some use heat exchange systems to warm up water.

Tourism in South Africa has always had a big outdoor focus. With the pandemic, the focus on outdoor activities has grown, while indoor tourism experiences like visiting galleries, museums, theatres and malls have become riskier. South Africa has a wealth of outdoor activity options, so hikes and walks, beach activities, cycling and visits to nearby national parks have become more popular, but Responsible Tourism should still be top of mind. When enjoying nature, we should remember that more of us are now using the outdoors, and try to minimise our impact on nature and the environment.

New lifestyles and trends have emerged in 2021. What’s become clear is that travellers are enjoying more local travel and engaging in more outdoor activity. With travel bans and restrictions still in place, South Africans, like many people in other countries, are having shorter, local, outdoor-focussed holidays as a safe release from the ‘hibernation’ enforced by the pandemic. They’re hiking, camping, and discovering small, lesser-known destinations in their own region.

Another global trend that has reached South Africa is the increasing popularity of the ‘digital nomad’ lifestyle. With efficient Wi-Fi now more prevalent, many South Africans can live and work far from the office, giving them the opportunity to choose a different lifestyle.

Travel trend trackers also note that people are eager to travel for reunions with friends and family. Safety will be an issue, however, so they will look for travel agents and operators to help them find safe, suitable accommodation, activities and transport.

The popularity of niche travel has also grown. Responsible South Africans have joined the global trend towards safe, socially distanced activities, with niche experiences: intrepid pursuits such as mountain bike tours, downhill scooter experiences, walking tours, and local food and art tours. Many tourism SMMEs are ‘pivoting’ to offer these niche experiences.

All of these support local tourism and people from local communities, which is one of the pillars of Responsible Tourism.

The past year has seen a different kind of travel. It’s been a journey of learning. The pandemic has been tough on the economy but has also taught us that there are many ways to practise and support Responsible Tourism. The efforts of the tourism and hospitality industry have been commendable. We can all do our part, as travellers and travel-related businesses, to ensure we emerge from these tough times smarter, economically healthy, and even more responsible.