South Africa’s allure as a tourist destination is undeniable. Its breathtaking wildlife, rich cultural experiences, and vibrant urban hubs have attracted millions of visitors from around the world. However, the COVID-19 pandemic dealt a severe blow to the tourism industry, affecting not only the country’s economy but also the livelihoods of thousands of informal traders who rely on tourism. This article delves into the challenges faced by these traders and proposes practical solutions to support their recovery and growth.
The Impact of Tourism on South Africa
Before the pandemic, South Africa was experiencing a steady rise in tourist arrivals, with numbers peaking at over 10 million in 2019. However, the outbreak of COVID-19 led to a dramatic decline, with only 3 million visitors in 2021. While there has been some recovery, it remains far from pre-pandemic levels. This downturn has had a devastating impact on the country, especially given that the tourism sector contributed 3.7% to its GDP.
The Plight of Informal Traders
Among the hardest-hit by this decline are South Africa’s informal traders, who play a vital role in the tourism sector. Tens of thousands of individuals and families rely on tourism for their livelihoods, and the drop in foreign tourist numbers has had a cascading effect on communities across the country.
Traders and Tourism in Cape Town
Cape Town, one of South Africa’s premier tourist destinations, provides a compelling case study. Informal traders in Cape Town offer unique products such as arts, crafts, and leather goods, contributing to the city’s vibrant atmosphere. In our study, we found that 60% of these traders were men, while 40% were women, reflecting the diversity of the trading community.
Themes that Emerged
Several key themes emerged from our research:
- Tourist Dependency: Many traders relied heavily on tourists for their clientele and revenue, with some reporting that up to 95% of their business came from tourists.
- Tourist Spending Power: Turnover for these traders had not recovered to pre-pandemic levels, with some struggling to make ends meet.
- Link to the Local Market: Faced with a decline in foreign tourists, traders pivoted toward products appealing to the local market, showing remarkable resilience.
- The Return of Tourists: Traders believed that the return of international tourists was essential for the long-term sustainability of their businesses.
Supporting Informal Traders
Our research clearly indicates the need to support South Africa’s informal traders. However, this support should not burden them with bureaucracy and red tape. Instead, it should empower them to thrive. Here are some recommended interventions:
- Access to Resources and Training: Provide traders with access to resources and training to enhance their skills and business acumen.
- Policies that Support Informal Traders: Develop policies that acknowledge and support the contributions of informal traders to the economy.
- Access to Markets: Facilitate traders’ access to markets, potentially through online platforms and partnerships with established businesses.
- Safe and Affordable Storage: Offer secure and affordable overnight storage solutions for merchandise, reducing the risk of theft.
- Maintaining Law and Order: Ensure law and order in trading areas to create a safe and welcoming environment for both traders and tourists.
- Rebuilding South Africa’s Reputation: Take decisive measures to rebuild the country’s reputation, dispelling labels like “dangerous” that deter tourists.
South Africa’s tourism industry has been a crucial driver of economic growth for decades, benefiting countless individuals and communities. As we emerge from the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is imperative that we focus on the long-term sustainability of the sector and the well-being of informal traders. A bottom-up approach, free from excessive red tape, is the path to a brighter future for South Africa’s tourism and its dedicated informal traders.
We would like to express our gratitude to Vickey de Villiers for her invaluable contribution, which formed the basis of this article. Her Master’s dissertation played a pivotal role in shaping the insights presented here. The authors have no financial interests or affiliations that could influence the content of this article beyond their academic roles.