Is it possible for a region experiencing historic water shortages to remain a high-growth tourist destination?
Cape Town’s experience over the past year shows not only that the answer is “yes”, but also that tourism can help sustain an economy and build resilience in a time of crisis.
Part of the reason for this is the extraordinary efforts made by residents, business, and visitors to more than half the total daily consumption of water by the city in the past three years from around 1200 mega litres of water a day in 2015 to 540 mega litres a day last week.
This achievement is surely unprecedented in a major city like Cape Town.
Especially when you note that, as this reduction has occurred, international arrivals to Cape Town International have been growing at more than 20% year on year for the past two years.
Much of the credit for the reduction in water consumption is due to citizens of the city who use more than 65% of available water.
This means that saving habits by ordinary residents have the biggest effect on water use, and that the taps will stay open if all Capetonians keep reducing their usage at home.
Business and industry have also pulled their weight. The majority of companies we work with at Wesgro have cut their consumption by monitoring water use, becoming more water efficient, adopting water re-use policies, or using alternative sources.
Relative to households and industry, tourists use very little water simply because they make up such a small part of the resident population of the Western Cape and therefore have a relatively limited impact on water resources.
International tourists add around 1% to the population over the course of the year.
If you add domestic tourists this number increases to 2.4% and, even at the peak of the season, tourists make up less than 5% of the population of the city.
In addition, the hospitality industry under the leadership of Jamms – an association of member-based tourism bodies including Cape Town Tourism, Fedhasa, Satsa and Saaci – has really pulled together to communicate to each of their clients that they need to be mindful of the situation and “save like a local”.
Jamms has initiated an urgent dialogue to ensure that tourists continue to visit, that international conferences go ahead, and that investors are welcomed and reassured that the Western Cape is open for tourists mindful of our constrained supply of water.
Because of this, most hotels are consuming significantly less water than before the drought. Tsogo Sun, the largest hotel operator in the Cape, has reduced its consumption of water by 40% across the group by monitoring water consumption per bed night, removing bath plugs, adding water-saving shower roses and tap restrictors, scrapping table linen and reducing linen changes.
They are also working to move entire hotels on to water supplies independent of the City’s system.
In addition, major events like the Cape Town Cycle Tour and the Volvo Ocean Race have reduced to their “water footprint” to neutral or even positive, meaning that they make a net contribution to the water supply of the city.
This work is critically important because of the contribution tourism makes to the Cape economy.
The Western Cape must remain open to international visitors and tourists for a number of reasons.
The tourism industry creates formal employment for more than 206 000 people.
If you add in jobs created by this industry and indirect job creation we’re looking at a figure over 300 000.
To lose that number of jobs would be exceedingly stressful to the economy and to the principle of maintaining successful business continuity throughout this crisis.
Tourist spending also contributes R38.8 billion a year to the region’s economy, based on the most recent data from 2016.
Given that the 2017 figures are expected to show an increase of 5% in 2017, it’s clear that we cannot and must not damage this valuable driver of the economy.
Because of negative international reporting on the situation we have had reports of some tour groups cancelling their visits, but we are encouraging tourists to “come and enjoy, but be mindful”.
The Western Cape also has a unique and diverse tourism offering, and not all parts of the province are as severely affected by the drought at this stage.
Several regions around Cape Town, such as the Cape Overberg and the Garden Route, have sufficient water and are not in a drought situation.
The feedback we have received from local tourism offices across the province, and the industry itself, is that those tourists who did visit this December spent more time in the regions than in previous years.
Tourists come to the Cape Town and the Western Cape region because of its breathtaking scenery, and attractions such as Table Mountain, which is a World Heritage Site.
They come to take in the beauty and diversity of the region, from the City’s beaches, sophisticated restaurants, the V&A Waterfront, wine farms in the Winelands, and the spectacular Garden Route as just a few of the attractions the province has to offer.
We firmly believe that “day zero” will be avoided as residents, businesses and tourists keep reducing their water consumption.
But, should we reach the point where the regular municipal supply of water is ended, visitors should be assured that almost all of our major hotels will be in “business protection zones” where supply will not be interrupted, and that many establishments have made contingency plans for alternative supplies of water.
Beyond this, water for basic needs will be supplied at distribution points which will not require identification by tourists, and those tourists who are staying in Backpacker Lodges, or Airbnb establishments will be able to collect water.
There are high-level meetings taking place on how to protect the industry and to assuage and answer questions that locals may have about visitors from out of town.
In any crisis, especially one as visceral and daunting as drought, it’s natural that people look to outsiders and to express a wish that they stay away. The data disproves that the impact of tourists and international visitor is significant.
It would be a massive mistake to lose our tourist income. Businesses would have to shed staff and the impact of that would be unthinkable when unemployment remains high.
That is why we need to continue to welcome visitors, to guide them to spend time in less water-stressed areas such as the Garden Route, and to invite them to join residents of this vibrant province to save water, while having the best experience possible during their stay.
Climate change will be a reality for more and more cities in the coming years. We are confident that Capetonians will be able to cut their consumption in the coming months, and avoid a “day zero scenario”.
This ability to avoid a one-in-a-thousand-year crisis would significantly boost the investment case for Cape Town and the Western Cape. A resilient city will be an attractive city for tourists.
We urge all tourists who visit our beautiful city and province to reduce their consumption to 50 litres a person a day. If we all do this we can avoid “day zero”.
* Tim Harris is the chief executive of Wesgro, the official tourism, trade and investment promotion agency for Cape Town and the Western Cape.