By Dr. Unathi Sonwabile Henama – Lecturer in Tourism Management, Tshwane University of Technology
On the 12th of August 2021, all commercial flights to Plettenberg Bay were suspended by the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA), after the airport was downgraded. Charter and private operations would however not be affected by the affected. Complying with regulations and statutory requirements is non-negotiable.
SACCA had met with the Bitou Municipality regarding severe non-compliance related to the aerodrome, in the interest of aviation safety and security. The unintended consequence of the suspension of flights to Plettenberg Bay is that the tourism value chain on the Garden Route will be negatively affected. The Garden Route depends on the Plettenberg Bay aerodrome for aviation access that sustains the tourism value chain. The Garden Route is one of the most popular tourism routes and the region is highly dependent on the tourism and hospitality industry for jobs and economic growth.
When the tourism industry sneezes, the whole Garden Route economy catches a cold. CemAir which services the Plettenberg Bay route announced that all of its flights were suspended to the aerodrome. Passengers that had tickets to fly into Plettenberg Bay from both Cape Town and Johannesburg would be assisted to the George Airport.
Domestic tourism which was gazed upon as a panacea for tourism recovery due to the slow return of international tourism will be hard hit in the Garden Route.
Travelling to smaller towns in amenity-rich areas has grown in the past few years, and has been defined as semigration. Towns along the Garden Route are some of the biggest beneficiaries when retirees and professionals migrate their families to smaller towns and cities particularly in the Western Cape, and the biggest loser has been the Gauteng Province.
The changes brought by Working-from-Home had further accelerated semigration, which further led to many professionals leaving led to increased traffic between the urban centres of work and semigration destinations. Semigrants would commute over weekends and long weekends to these smaller towns and cities using smaller airports that have shown a health growth in passengers. Semigration presents a distinct and uniquely South African experience in Visiting Friends and Relatives Tourism (VFR) which dominate domestic tourism expenditure in South Africa.
The Western Cape has benefitted from an increase of arrivals in domestic tourists due to the moving of people away especially from the Gauteng Province. CemAir which services this route will have its recovery challenged, considering the difficult trading environment as a result of COVID-19. CemAir had created a niche by servicing smaller towns and cities using much smaller aircraft. The Bitou Municipality must immediate address these challenges so that the airport can be once again classified as a Grade 4, so that it can receive scheduled flights. Tourism recovery depends on reliable transport to link tourists and the tourism destinations that they seek to visit, considering that tourism is travel intensive.