South African Tourism Soars: Record Rebound in Q1 2023

South African Tourism
  • South African tourism has experienced a significant rebound in Q1 2023, with international arrivals and foreign direct spend both increasing substantially from 2022 levels, although not yet reaching the pre-pandemic figures from 2019.
  • The country has seen growth in both inbound and domestic tourism, with notable resilience in the domestic market surpassing pre-pandemic levels. The MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences & Exhibitions) sector has also shown substantial growth.
  • Minister Patricia De Lille emphasized the government’s commitment to boosting tourism, citing strategies such as improving visa turnaround times, increasing air access, ensuring safety, and aggressive marketing. She reiterated that South Africa is open for tourism and is actively inviting travelers from across the world to experience its unique beauty and rich culture.

In an exhilarating media briefing yesterday, Minister Patricia De Lille unveiled South Africa’s latest tourism statistics, showing a remarkable resurgence in international and domestic travel. After a challenging period during the COVID-19 pandemic, the nation’s tourism sector is showing signs of recovery, with robust figures for Q1 2023.

In 2022, South Africa welcomed nearly 5.8 million visitors, including 4 million from Africa. This represents a remarkable 152.6% increase from 2021, an encouraging sign of the sector’s recovery.

Despite this growth, the country has not yet reached the 10 million arrivals mark that it achieved in 2019. However, De Lille is confident that through strategic collaboration with the private sector and African nations, the country will soon surpass this number.

The Q1 2023 figures reveal that the country welcomed 2.1 million visitors, a 102.5% increase compared to the same period in 2022. African nations led the way, contributing 1.6 million arrivals, followed by 387,000 from Europe, and 104,000 from the Americas.

Tourism’s Economic Contribution

Foreign direct spend in Q1 2023 amounted to an astounding R25.3 billion, a 143.9% increase from Q1 2022. European tourists were the biggest spenders, contributing R10.8 billion, followed by African visitors, who spent a total of R9.3 billion.

De Lille also highlighted remarkable growth in spending from Zimbabwean and Mozambican visitors, but noted a decrease in spend from UK visitors.

In terms of source markets, Zimbabwe maintained its position as South Africa’s top source market, with over 500,000 visitors between January and March 2023. Mozambique followed closely behind, with more than 354,000 arrivals.

The UK, despite a decrease in visitor numbers, still ranked fifth, with more than 118,000 arrivals in the first quarter of 2023.

De Lille further revealed that total bed nights for Q1 2023 amounted to 28.4 million, a 3% decline over Q1 2019 but a significant 124% increase over Q1 2022. The average length of stay also increased to 13 days, surpassing the 11-day average in 2019.

Domestic Travel and MICE Sector

Domestic overnight trips and overnight spend in Q1 2023 also surpassed pre-pandemic levels. The total number of nights spent away from home reached 27.9 million, a 32.9% increase over the same period in 2022.

The Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, and Exhibitions (MICE) sector also showed signs of recovery, with a 12.3% increase in trips in Q1 2023.

The South African National Conventions Bureau secured 40 bids for the 2022/23 financial year, contributing R338m to South Africa’s economy and attracting over 16,500 international and regional delegates.

Air Access and New Routes

Air capacity has also increased, with a 56% increase in Q1 2023 compared to the same quarter in 2022. In 2023, South Africa welcomed around 23 new routes, further boosting the country’s attractiveness to international visitors.

In conclusion, Minister De Lille emphasized the positive direction of the country’s tourism numbers, attributing this success to focused action on improving visa turnaround times, increasing air access, ensuring safety, and aggressive marketing.

Working in collaboration with all stakeholders, South Africa aims to boost tourism’s contribution to the economy and job creation. “With the world reawakening, tourists are flocking back to South Africa, enticed by our unparalleled natural beauty and the warmth of our people,” said De Lille.

Geographically, Gauteng leads in international arrivals, spend, and bed nights, with visitors spending most of their nights in the Western Cape, followed by Gauteng. The Eastern Cape, Northern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), and the North West also attract tourists with their unique offerings. Despite smaller provinces currently witnessing fewer visitors, Minister De Lille urges tourists to explore these regions, known for their unmatched beauty and value.

In the face of global challenges such as inflation, rising energy prices, and geopolitical conflicts, South Africa has made significant strides, outperforming popular long-haul destinations such as China, France, Italy, and Brazil. To further strengthen its position, the minister emphasized the need for aggressive marketing and expanding the country’s reach in major source markets like Africa, Europe, China, the USA, the UK, and India.

One of the key strategies to attract more tourists involves enhancing air access. The first quarter of 2023 saw a 56% increase in air capacity compared to the same period last year, with South Africa welcoming around 23 new routes. Notable additions include direct flights from Cape Town to New York and Washington by United Airlines, and Air China’s resumption of direct flights to South Africa. The impending LATAM flight from Brazil to OR Tambo International Airport is also expected to further boost tourism.

Domestic tourism has also shown promising growth, with the first quarter of 2023 registering a 41.0% increase in overnight trips compared to pre-pandemic levels. A total of 27.9 million nights were spent away from home, marking a 32.9% increase over the same period in 2022. Interestingly, the average length of stay per trip fell by 5.7%, reflecting a global trend of travelers opting for shorter, more frequent trips.

The Meetings, Incentives, Conferences & Exhibitions (MICE) sector has also seen substantial growth, with a 12.3% increase in MICE trips during the first quarter of 2023. The South African National Conventions Bureau’s Sales team has secured 40 bids for the 2022/23 financial year, expected to contribute R338 million to South Africa’s economy between 2022 and 2025 and attract over 16,500 international and regional delegates.

In conclusion, Minister De Lille expressed optimism about the direction of South Africa’s tourism sector. “With focused action on improving visa turnaround times, increasing air access, ensuring safety, and aggressive marketing, we are determined to surpass pre-COVID levels,” she said. “Working together with all stakeholders, we aim to boost tourism’s contribution to the economy and job creation.”

The positive tourism statistics serve as a testament to South Africa’s resilience and determination to bounce back in the face of adversity. The country is not just open for tourism but is actively inviting the world to experience its unique beauty and rich culture. As Minister De Lille affirmed, South Africa is eagerly awaiting travelers from across Africa and the globe.

Table 1: International Arrivals to South Africa in Q1 (Jan-Mar)

YearNumber of Visitors% Change from Previous Year
20192.68 million
20221.04 million-60.2%
20232.1 million+102.5%
Caption: Table 1 shows the number of international arrivals to South Africa in the first quarter of the year for 2019, 2022, and 2023.

Table 2: Foreign Direct Spend in South Africa in Q1 (Jan-Mar)

YearAmount (in R billions)% Change from Previous Year
Caption: Table 2 depicts the foreign direct spend in South Africa in the first quarter of the year for 2019, 2022, and 2023.

Table 3: Top 10 Source Markets for South Africa in Q1 2023

RankCountryNumber of Arrivals
5United Kingdom118,000
Caption: Table 3 presents the top 10 source markets for South African tourism in the first quarter of 2023.

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