The Cape Town water crisis has more to do with improper water management and inaccurate, inconsistent messaging than the city actually being in completely dire circumstances. That's why collaboration matters, between huge global organizations all the way down to individual travelers and locals, to promote the reality of international issues and the benefits tourism can have if done in a sustainable way.
Skift Senior Research Analyst Rebecca Stone is traveling the globe over the next year as part of Remote Year, a program that brings together working professionals to travel, live, and work remotely. She’ll spend a month in 12 cities around the world that include Cape Town, Lisbon, Valencia, Sofia, Hanoi, Chiang Mai, Kyoto, Kuala Lumpur, Lima, Medellin, Bogotà, and Mexico City. And every month she’ll take you along for part of the journey with a feature about her observations based on firsthand reporting and data about the changing travel industry. She’ll do the jet lag. All you have to do is kick back and enjoy her compelling dispatches.
I stumbled groggily out of the bathroom after a 16-hour flight from New York’s JFK to South Africa’s Cape Town International Airport thinking about how far I was from home. As I fumbled with the sink faucet, I became confused as to why no water was coming out.
Then it hit me: There is no water.
Newsflashes and media articles came rushing back – Cape Town is in the middle of a water crisis, with 2017 recording the lowest amount of rainfall since 1933. Level 6B restrictions have been in place since February 1, limiting residents’ usage of water to 50 liters a day, or a little more than 13 gallons. For reference, shower heads can release anywhere from 10 to 20 liters of water per minute. A load of laundry can take 50 liters.
Then the voices of concern from my friends, family, and colleagues prior to my departure flooded my mind — “I heard they have no water.” “Is it safe to go to Cape Town right now?” “Is it even right for you to go and use what little water they have?”
I used some hand sanitizer and headed out for my temporary new home in Cape Town’s City Centre, thinking to myself, “Well, I guess this is Africa.” (I would later find out that “This is Africa,” or TIA, is a term thrown around to excuse certain shortcomings of Africa, whether fair or not.)
I would learn over the next couple weeks how to take two-minute showers, to strategically position a bucket in the shower and then use the leftover “grey water” to flush the toilet, to always carry hand sanitizer as many public restrooms had turned the water off, to do laundry with friends to create a full load, and to always carry bottled water instead of drinking the municipal water from the sink.
However, those small lifestyle changes proved trivial in the context of everything else I did while in Cape Town. I hiked Lion’s Head, Devil’s Peak, and Table Mountain. I visited Aquila Private Game Reserve for a weekend safari trip. I volunteered at Cheetah Experience Ashia, a sanctuary dedicated to cheetah conservation. I toured four wine farms in Stellenbosch and bought a bottle to take home with me. I ate ice cream sitting next to a penguin at Boulders Beach. I took a Malay cooking class in the Bo-Kaap neighborhood. I did a bicycle tour through the Khayelitsha township and tasted sheep’s head for the first (and likely last) time. I visited Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years, and the District 6 museum, a memorial dedicated to the forced removal of 60,000 inhabitants from District 6 in the 1970s during the Apartheid. I saw a South African play at the Fugard Theatre. I dined at countless, amazing restaurants, cafes, and bars. I did what tourists do best: I spent money.
International Arrivals Impact
While experiencing how wonderful Cape Town is and realizing that everyone needs to come here, I learned that the city’s tourism numbers tell another story. Growth in international arrivals to Cape Town International Airport on a 12-month rolling basis has been decelerating since July 2017. International visitors this past February into the airport were up 7 percent year-over-year, but this compared to growth of 26 percent in February just a year ago.
Why the slow down when visitors could enjoy essentially everything — fabulous activities, a wonderful culture, and a beautiful climate — when they come to Cape Town? I thought about how I couldn’t reconcile my growing love for the city as a traveler with the tourism numbers on my Uber ride out to the Last Word Constantia, a beautiful, luxury, boutique hotel that is part of the Mantis Collection, in which AccorHotels recently took a stake.
“It’s not so much cancellations, it’s just forward bookings,” explained general manager Nicky Coenen of The Last Word properties.
A survey by Wesgro, the official tourism, trade, and investment promotion agency for Cape Town and the Western Cape, confirmed her thoughts. According to 18 top hotels in Cape Town and amongst top tour operators for the market, bookings made in January and February were between 10 percent and 15 percent worse than the same period last year. April to September bookings are down between 30 percent and 50 percent.
People who are thinking about visiting Cape Town seem to be holding off as they wait to see how the water situation plays out. If there is any silver lining, it is that the brunt of the decline in bookings seems to be falling during the destination’s rainer, colder, lower demand season (April to September), which would have been a small proportion of yearly sales regardless. Hotels may still be able to come out ahead (or not too far behind) if the drought (and media coverage of it) improves in time for peak season next year.
But how do you explain the deceleration that has been occurring since last year? The team at The Last Word Constantia gave a laundry list of issues impacting arrivals to Cape Town and South Africa in general — the water situation; the exchange rate (The South African Rand has been strengthening, which makes it more costly for international visitors. British visitors, who make up approximately 17 percent of overseas visitors to South Africa, versus 14 percent from the U.S., have been particularly impacted as the British Pound has been weakening.); land claim issues post-Apartheid; a recent listeriosis outbreak; the need for unabridged birth certificates for traveling minors; the difficulty of obtaining visas for certain countries such as China and New Zealand; economic and political uncertainty; and general increases in pricing for add-on activities such as a safari in Kruger National Park resulting in the whole South African itinerary becoming incrementally more expensive.
Clearly, there is a whole host of issues that are impacting tourism to Cape Town, but some of these are unwarranted or exaggerated. Steve Robertson, marketing manager for The Last Word pointed out that some of the problems “aren’t even in existence, [but the idea of them is] creating a fear which causes people not to come when there’s no justification in the fear.”
Now, the water situation has been receiving a significant amount of negative publicity since January and February amidst the announcement of Day Zero, a tactic used by officials to encourage locals and organizations to limit their usage of water. The confusion about when Day Zero actually is (it’s been pushed out to 2019) and if residents and tourists have access to water (they do) has resulted in a significant amount of mixed messaging all implying that Cape Town is in dire circumstances.
While this is far from the truth, I don’t mean to belittle the situation or to be insensitive. The region is experiencing a severe drought, and the impact to many has been awful. Improving water management and employing better strategies to reduce water consumption is critical. Changes need to be and are being made.
Coenen noted, “we’ve had to reduce our consumption by between anywhere between 40 and 60 percent over the last couple months which we’ve been … doing. It’s things like putting restrictions in the taps, it’s changing the shower heads to 9 liters per minute instead of 20, or doing things like linen changes every third day unless it’s absolutely necessary.” The majority of these items would be barely noticeable to a hotel guest, other than perhaps being asked to not take a bath during his or her stay.
“We just have to be mindful. Whereas everybody should anyway,” said The Last Word’s Robertson.
He has a point. Water is a limited resource. The challenges brought about as a result of the Western Cape drought are no different than the struggles that other destinations such as California and Australia are facing.
Adapting to a Mindset
What I ultimately learned is that it isn’t about the severity and impact of the drought, but about how water can be better and more properly managed. While cities and governments work on desalination plants, wells, and dams, organizations and individuals alike can be working towards reducing water consumption while seeking alternative water sources. It cannot be just the efforts of one hotel portfolio, but must be a more collaborate effort on the part of everyone. We can all work together to educate and hold each other accountable. How often do you really need to have a 20-minute shower anyway?
Perhaps we, as a collaborative, inter-connected world, should be doing more to limit the amount of water we use unnecessarily on a daily basis and work together to improve the management of water. When asked when she thought the water restrictions would ease, Coenen replied that this “will be the new norm … It’s just a mindset change that everybody has to adapt to.”
In addition, is isn’t just about reducing consumption. More accurate, consistent messaging is equally as important. Stakeholders in the tourism, travel and hospitality industries, associations and organizations involved with the success of Cape Town and South Africa, and the international media and other news outlets should all be working together to have consistent messaging promoting what it is really like in Cape Town, not to spread fear.
Cape Town is open for business, and the media should be encouraging travelers to check out this wonderful destination. “There is water. We can drink it, we can shower, [and] we can flush toilets,” Coenen emphasized, later noting that it simply is “not as bad as it’s being portrayed.” Based on the photos above, I hope what is evident is that the drought did not adversely impact my time or experience in Cape Town, and it certainly wouldn’t impact the experience of a hotel guest.
This necessary change in messaging should also include dispelling the myth that, in times like these, tourism is bad or negatively impacts the economy. Monthly international visitors make up about 1 percent of the population, rendering our impact on the overall water supply negligible. On the other hand, what do we contribute that isn’t negligible? Our money, which creates jobs, stimulates businesses, and boosts the overall economy. Tourism contributes an estimated 10 percent to GDP for South Africa. The economic benefit that tourists provide far outweighs any cost or impact we could have on the water situation. “If [tourism] slows,” Robertson said, “we start to create a much bigger problem than the water problem ever could.”
Regardless, being physically here, you can sense that sentiment is improving. There is general excitement for what’s to come, despite of the ever-changing political and economic environment and recent appointment of a new president.
“The changes that have happened now are positive ones. There will be teething problems as we go along and that’s with any change.” Coenen said.
Let’s not forget that South Africa is amidst a new era. On Friday, April 27, the country celebrated Freedom Day, a public holiday commemorating the first post-Apartheid elections held on that day in 1994. That was a mere 24 years ago.
“There’s been a lot of improvement, but there is a long way to go,” Steve Swart, a member of Parliament for the African Christian Democratic Party, told us during a tour of the South African Parliament. “There [are] massive amounts of wealth to be unlocked.“
In addition, Coenen said “The [new] president [Cyril Ramaphosa] is far more concerned about job creation and supporting the tourism industry, knowing that it is one of South Africa’s biggest sources of income.”
And there certainly is room for growth in the Cape Town tourism industry. Cape Town welcomed a mere million international arrivals through its airport last year. This compares to around 15 million international passengers who passed through the Sydney Airport and 25 million through the Los Angeles International Airport. Perhaps that is why hospitality companies like Accor are reinforcing their footprint in the region.
For all of the obstacles as to why people aren’t coming to Cape Town, the only one I find to be legitimate is its geographical distance from many locations. But once you get here, it’s an experience of a lifetime.
Cape Town Stronger Than Water Issue
The tourism industry “is very resilient,” said Coenen. “It will bounce back. It will go through this phase, and we will come out a lot better for it … The overpowering brand of Cape Town is far stronger than this water issue.”
As I sit here writing and reflecting on my time in Cape Town, I think about, despite where I am geographically, how much I feel at home. I think about how the seasons will always continue to change. I think about how we, as travelers, have a duty to be conscientious, discerning, and dispel ignorance by going to destinations to experience what they are truly like. I think about the healing power of a collaborative effort, where individuals all the way up to governments work together to improve the world in which we live.
And as I think, I listen to the pitter patter of rain hitting the windows of my co-working space. The forecast for the next couple days? Rain.
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Photo credit: The view of the Twelve Apostles in Cape Town suggests little cause for alarm for tourists looking to come and enjoy the city. Rebecca Stone / Skift