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December is traditionally a booming period for the travel and hospitality industry as people take time off at the end of the year for their annual holidays

With the arrival of the festive season this year however, many are torn between desperately wanting to resume some sense of normalcy and to get away for the holidays, and at the same time to take heed of Covid-19 and keep themselves and their loved ones safe.

So what does this first festive season since Covid-19 made its appearance look like and how has it affected SA’s hospitality sector?

Neil Markovitz, CEO of Newmark, a hotel management company with a diverse collection of hotels, residences, reserves and lodges in South Africa, East Africa, the Indian Ocean Islands and recently, an acquisition of a boutique hotel portfolio in Portugal, offers some insider insights into travel trends and preferences this year.

Fear remains a factor

“A key travel barrier that did not exist in the pre-Covid era is fear.  Some are afraid to be in contact with those possibly infected and, given the choice, would prefer to stay safe in their homes.  Because of this we are of course seeing a decrease in the number of bookings being made this year as to a normal season in previous years.”

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“Added to this, people remain uncertain about possible changes in lock down restrictions and how this may affect their travel plans and so bookings tend to be made last-minute, and for a shorter period than in other years – with a marked spike in booking between Christmas and New Year’s, tapering off quickly again in early January.”

Foreign travellers remain scarce

According to Markovitz, despite international borders opening up, the hospitality sector is not seeing a significant influx of foreign travellers this year, with bookings being predominantly from domestic holidaymakers.

“There is a sprinkling of international bookings coming through with lots of enquiries for next year. Our main inbound international markets are restricted by their own lockdowns and so it has been quieter than hoped, however we are confident that the vaccine will show a bump in bookings from foreign travellers in the first quarter of 2021.”

Far from the maddening crowd

Another change brought about through Covid-19 is the need to avoid large groups and busy spaces and so the celebratory events that would normally see spikes in bookings are not taking place.  “This year there are no big Christmas or New Year’s Eve parties as people adhere to safety protocols,” says Markovitz.

“Covid has also changed travel preferences and we have seen that holiday makers are looking for less crowded destinations where they can worry less about contracting the virus.”

“For example, the Karoo has seen a spike of interest with its wide-open spaces and clear skies, and our Drostdy Hotel and the Mount Cambadoo Private Game Reserve in Graaff Reinet have had more robust bookings.  The bush lodges in our portfolio, such as Motswari in the Greater Kruger, and Nkomazi Private Game Reserve in Mpumalanga – which recently re-opened after a R15 million refurbishment – are also proving to be more popular than the city escapes this year.  Nkomazi is seeing particular interest from Gauteng residents as it is only 3 hours from Johannesburg and malaria free,” explains Markovitz, who goes on to advise that Zanzibar is also enjoying a good season as it is one of the few countries that remains open during the second wave of Covid-19.  “Newmark’s property in Zanzibar, the Chuini Zanzibar Beach Lodge, has had bookings from many South Africans as well as holiday-makers from the UAE and Eastern Europe.”

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Budget conscious holidaymakers

Markovitz advises that holidaymakers are feeling the pinch after a tough economic year and to this end Newmark is seeing budget conscious travellers looking for special offers and travel deals.

“Local consumers are looking for value-added offerings and deals and in this light the strategy at Newmark has been adjusted and adapted to the local market.”

“Moving forward, fear and uncertainty will be the central factors in a travellers’ decisions, regardless of the rate of transmission in a particular country and the only way to ensure holiday-makers book to stay at an establishment is to reassure them that their safety is of the utmost importance,” says Markovitz. “Cleanliness and sanitization will become the norm.  Comprehensive health and safety protocols and systems need to be in place, only then will travellers feel confident enough to set out on their vacation.”

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