The Tourism sector facing bleak times

Will the COVID-19 pandemic, prove to be the endgame for tourism, as we know it?

For the average golfer, various situations on the golf course can be nerve-wracking. These include a carry over water, a 70-metre bunker shot, any type of sloping lie, finding their ball lying in a divot mark, etc.

Through practice, the tour professionals will have overcome the problems associated with dealing with most of these types of situations. However, even at this level there are still some that will challenge to both the player’s temperament and technique.

Naturally, these will vary from player to player. However, in general, examples will include; any tee shot (especially at the 72nd hole if they are in contention) with water down the left hand side of the playing area, a ball plugged in the face of a bunker and a teasing short putt of between 2 and 6 feet when the tournament result is on the line.

As for the last of these examples, Scott Hoch (US Masters to win the play-off against Nick Faldo in 1989), Bernhard Langer (Ryder Cup 1991 – final green to halve the Ryder Cup), Doug Sanders (1970 – 72nd green to win the Open Championship), will testify to these as having been nerve jangling moments.

The late Doug Sanders missing a short putt on the 72nd green at the Open Championship at St Andrews in 1970.

However, what does any of this have to do with golf clubs, the travel industry and golf tourism?

The fact is that in a business sense, the golf, tourism and travel industry sectors are facing all of these on course golf challenges at the same time.

The consensus of governments’ thinking and WHO (World Health Organisation) has been to shut down society.

This strategy has included various measures from staying at home and observing social distancing requirements and on to avoiding unnecessary travel. These protocols have been further extended in South Africa to include bans on the sale of cigarettes and alcohol and even on walking outside of your home.

Whatever arguments there might be, as to how the COVID-19 pandemic should best be handled, without fail the effect on the economies has been devastating, with whole swathes of business sectors, corporates and SMES unlikely to survive the immediate lockdown and its after effects.

The fact is that this is not natural selection at work.

The lockdown is unprecedented and an economy cannot be kick-started into immediate action like a motorbike and attain critical mass overnight.

Added to this challenge will be the fact that the lockdown will not have changed the structure of society.

In South Africa, 25 years has been wasted in failing to address the housing and land issues effectively. Because of this failure, people living in shacks and overcrowded townships, will be doing so for the foreseeable future.

We do not fully understand this virus and if you think that putting controls in place has been anything other than an educated guessing game, then just stop and analyse the current expert consensus on the ideal space between people for social distancing to become effective and the wearing of masks?

Yes - you guessed it, there isn’t one.

What we have seen are conflicting opinions around the globe.

Medical opinions suggest that distancing will be effective at 6 feet or 1.82 metres. I do not know if some of the shops I visit do not have a tape measure, but many spaces are set at much less than this with shoppers using a push trolley as the benchmark.

With masks, WHO has not recommended their use, other than for known cases (which is odd in itself, because if you have the virus aren’t you supposed to self-isolate?), or as part of the PPE supposed to be given to all front line medical staff.

Yet South Africa’s health minister, Dr. Zweli Mkhize added his voice, to the already confused debate, by recommending that everyone should wear one. This baffling statement was made when purpose made masks are not available anywhere and the limited stock that can be sourced is being reserved, quite rightly, for medical personnel.

Dr. Mkhize’s statement includes the rather unscientific comment that people can use “cloth masks, just make sure there’s a three-layer kind of thing”.

This is not to single out Dr. Mkhize, as to be fair the collective global advice is hardly reassuring, especially considering the patchy understanding of what makes the virus function and final immunity, added to which is that the date for the production of a freely available vaccine is probably at least a year to 18 months away.

Whatever finally transpires, it seems that following any period of lockdown, the problem of transmission will remain.

We have already seen cases where people have been quarantined and cleared of the virus, only for them to have tested positive in follow up tests.

Couple these elements to the fact many peoples’ fear of contracting the virus, and experiences of the lockdown itself and you have a toxic mix, which will probably change attitudes towards many everyday activities, including travel.

Does all of this anxiety spell the end tourism?... certainly not, but tourism is a ‘people business’ and the pandemic may well have set in motion a series of events, the end result to which may well see a quantum shift in how travel is viewed, managed and marketed in the future.

The present danger is that the longer the lockdown continues, the greater the number of SME’s there will be that will not make it through to the other side.

Those that do survive may well have to either look for partnerships, with other businesses of a similar size and complementary products and services, or rationalise their operations.

The danger in the broader business sense includes corporates sitting on significant cash reserves having a field day as they snap up struggling and undervalued companies, even to taking hitherto unaffordable stakes in much larger enterprises, the share values for which have plummeted since January.

It could be a Black Friday of global proportions, with bargain basement offers that could cannibalise the SME layers in many business sectors and set these areas back for years.

A possible glimmer of light is that with any continued anxiety around international travel, the local tourism market may well see an upsurge in activity, with the affluent overseas travellers preferring to spend their time ‘at home’.

That said any increased spend from this area, may fall well short in plugging the overall loss of spend.

This is the likely scenario, given that the average wage earner’s disposable income will have taken an absolute beating from the combined effects of a previously malfunctioning economy, and the new pressures created around decisions made to combat the pandemic.

What appears to be certain is that there are not going to be any quick fixes and the SA government has yet to deliver an economic plan for the future.

As an outcome, should there be a rationalisation of the numbers of golf clubs, this might not be bad thing in the longer term. A situation where clubs amalgamate and combine their resources, like the merger between the Kensington and Royal Johannesburg golf clubs some years ago (although this merger was motivated by other factors), could result in the formation of a number of stronger single entities, as opposed to two marginal or under-performing clubs.

Royal Johannesburg and Kensington East Course

Just as the virus seems to be particularly dangerous to those with underlying health issues, so this lockdown will seek out those businesses, which are operationally weak, (SAA is a prime example) or with too narrow a market base, unless it is in a particular and or sought after niche.

Retail operations like the Golfers Club, and golf clubs like Pecanwood, will all be working furiously to create potential business scenarios that might represent the norm going forward.

The Golfers Club Fourways

Pecanwood Golf & Country Club, North West

This makes good commercial sense as trying to be prepared will be a key element to many businesses’ survival. It would also be reasonable to predict that the ‘survivors’ in golf, tourism and the golf travel sector, will be those businesses in niche areas (such as that occupied by the food industry during the pandemic) and or with the resources, imagination and agility to reinvent themselves, whatever it takes.

Various sectors in the industry are going to need to cooperate with each other if we are going to make it through.

The loner DNA type, that typifies a golfer, will be a liability in the current circumstances, where moving to an economy in which the ‘we’ is more important than the ‘me’, might well be critical to our collective survival.

In the middle of all this uncertainty, it might be worth remembering that the international distress call sign SOS means to ‘save our souls’ not save ourselves!

GolfVistaSA April 2020: The Tourism sector facing bleak times.

John Cockayne – Mobile: +27 (0) 73 896 7931 | Email:

The contents, ideas and concepts expressed in this document are the sole property and copyright of the author and may not be copied, used, communicated to any third party in any way or manner and or activated without the express written approval of John Cockayne.

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