The Impact of COVID-19 on Tourism and Hospitality in South Africa: Challenges and Recovery Strategies


The COVID-19 pandemic, caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), has had profound global effects on various sectors, and tourism and hospitality have been among the hardest hit. This essay explores the specific impact of the pandemic on South Africa’s tourism and hospitality industry. South Africa, known for its diverse landscapes, wildlife, and cultural heritage, heavily relies on tourism as a major contributor to its economy and employment. The essay delves into the repercussions of the pandemic on tourist arrivals, revenue generation, employment, and the measures taken by the South African government to mitigate the crisis.

Decline in Tourist Arrivals and Revenue Generation

Before the pandemic, South Africa had experienced a steady growth in tourist arrivals and revenue. According to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) in 2019, the direct contribution of travel and tourism to the country’s GDP was 3.1%, which amounted to ZAR 139.5 billion (Van Niekerk, 2020). However, the outbreak of COVID-19 led to a drastic decline in international tourist arrivals due to travel restrictions, lockdowns, and fear of contracting the virus.

Research conducted by Beykan and Roper in 2021 found that the number of foreign tourists visiting South Africa in 2020 had dropped by 72.8% compared to the previous year (Beykan & Roper, 2021). This sharp decline severely impacted revenue generation in the tourism sector, leading to the closure of many businesses and job losses. Smaller tourism enterprises and businesses catering primarily to international tourists were the most affected.

Job Losses and Unemployment in the Hospitality Sector

The COVID-19 pandemic’s adverse effects were felt throughout the hospitality sector, leading to widespread job losses and unemployment. In a study by Du Plessis and Abrie in 2020, it was reported that about 1.2 million jobs were lost in South Africa’s travel and tourism sector during the first half of 2020 (Du Plessis & Abrie, 2020). This represented a significant blow to the economy as the sector was a major employer, particularly for those in rural areas and with lower educational qualifications.

The closure of hotels, restaurants, and tourist attractions resulted in a cascade of economic repercussions, impacting various related industries such as transportation, agriculture, and manufacturing. Unemployment rates surged, exacerbating existing socio-economic disparities within the country.

Government Response and Recovery Strategies

Recognizing the importance of tourism and hospitality for the economy, the South African government implemented several measures to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on the industry. One of the key initiatives was the establishment of the Tourism Relief Fund in 2020. This fund aimed to provide financial support to tourism businesses and help preserve jobs during the crisis (Kabanda & Rogerson, 2021).

Additionally, the government worked on implementing health and safety protocols to ensure that the industry could safely resume operations once restrictions were eased. These protocols included stringent hygiene measures, social distancing guidelines, and capacity restrictions in tourist establishments.

Domestic Tourism and Digitalization

To counteract the decline in international tourist arrivals, there was a concerted effort to promote domestic tourism. With international travel restrictions in place, many South Africans explored their own country’s tourist attractions, contributing to the sector’s partial recovery.

The pandemic also accelerated the adoption of digital technologies in the tourism and hospitality industry. Online booking platforms, contactless payments, and virtual tours gained popularity as businesses sought to adapt to the changing consumer behavior (Novelli et al., 2020). The integration of technology helped enhance safety measures and improve the overall tourist experience.

The Future of Tourism and Hospitality in South Africa

Looking ahead, the recovery of the tourism and hospitality sector in South Africa remains uncertain. The success of vaccination efforts and the management of potential future waves of the virus will play a critical role in determining the industry’s trajectory.

A study by Mthembu and Ukpere in 2022 discussed the importance of sustainable tourism practices in the post-pandemic era (Mthembu & Ukpere, 2022). They emphasized the need for the industry to focus on responsible tourism, conservation, and community engagement to build resilience against future shocks.


The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted South Africa’s tourism and hospitality industry, causing a decline in tourist arrivals, revenue generation, and widespread job losses. The sector’s recovery has been heavily reliant on government support, promotion of domestic tourism, and the adoption of digital technologies. Moving forward, a sustainable and responsible approach to tourism will be vital to ensure the industry’s resilience against future crises. By learning from the challenges posed by the pandemic, South Africa can rebuild its tourism and hospitality sector and emerge stronger and more adaptable in the face of uncertainties.


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Kabanda, S. M., & Rogerson, C. M. (2021). Tourism resilience in South Africa: The role of the Tourism Relief Fund. Development Southern Africa, 38(5), 725-743.

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