It may not be the traditional Easter holiday bonanza in South Africa, but hoteliers, airlines and other tourism establishments are seeing a surge in bookings for the long weekend.
A quick search on the websites of the main domestic airlines show several flights sold out on the popular Joburg-Cape Town and Joburg-Durban routes, while prices on peak days have spiked on higher demand.
If you book a last-minute flight out of Joburg for today (Thursday) or Friday and return on Monday, you could be forking out more than R4 000 and R6 000, respectively, on the routes to Durban and Cape Town.
Business class return tickets on Comair’s domestic British Airways service on these routes for the long weekend will set you back as much as R7 000 and R10 000, respectively.
These are peak flying days with Friday and Monday being public holidays, so prices have peaked. But, for some context, return flight prices on these routes in February and March were going for as little as R800 and R1 500.
While you still can get flight specials on these routes this Saturday and Sunday at half that of the peak prices, the surge in prices highlight that demand is up for the long weekend.
Domestic tourism demand is also higher at accommodation establishments, including hotels, game lodges, family resorts and time-share hospitality properties, according to major hotel operators speaking to Moneyweb.
In fact, several well-known hotels and resorts are either fully booked or reaching capacity, such as Sun City in the North West, the Beverly Hills Hotel in Umhlanga Rocks, Arabella Hotel & Spa near Hermanus, Grand Hotel at Cape Town’s GrandWest Casino complex, Mount Grace in Magaliesburg, Kruger Park Lodge and the Drakensberg Sun resort.
While demand for local flights and accommodation is not at the levels of this time in 2019, the spike in bookings represents a much-needed boost for embattled airlines and the tourism industry.
The Easter holiday period was a write-off in 2020 due to the outbreak of Covid-19.
Most hotels were forced to close, and airlines were grounded. This saw tourism hot spots becoming ghost towns because of the initial Covid-19 “hard-lockdown” and as most of the population had to stay home and international travel was banned.
With no major lockdown this year, most hotels are open and domestic airlines are flying.
President Cyril Ramaphosa keeping South Africa on alert level 1 and allowing the sale of alcohol at restaurants and pubs (on-site consumption) will also bolster the broader hospitality industry.
FlySafair’s head of sales Kirby Gordon tells Moneyweb the airline has seen a surge in bookings for Easter and has put on extra local flights to some destinations, however this is based on peak season demand as opposed to increased bookings following President Ramaphosa’s address on Tuesday.
“Pricing is very much set by supply and demand… Now you would see very high prices for the Easter weekend, given that it’s a day out, which is why we advise customers to book in advance for the best prices,” he says.
Gordon points out that FlySafair is seeing about 70% of capacity and demand compared with the 2019 Easter long weekend.
“Obviously this time last year we were in lockdown…. The 70% [this season] is not wonderful in terms of the bigger picture, but it is great relative to where we were in say February and even early parts of March. We are very grateful for the uptick,” he says.
“The reality is that we need this kind of dynamic. We need to be able to achieve these higher prices during demand periods in order to offset times when we fly at a huge loss. It still doesn’t mean, frankly, that we will end this month [March] in a profit position…. But what it does help us do is stem the bleed for a little while,” he adds.
According to Gordon, in January and February the aviation industry globally was performing at around 36% to 40% of the capacity compared with last year, before the Covid-19 lockdowns and air travel restrictions.
Comair, which operates kulula.com and British Airways domestic flights in South Africa, did not give specifics on bookings when questioned by Moneyweb.
However, the group’s revenue executive Desmond O’Connor, noted in an emailed response that pent-up demand and “some incredible deals” have seen an escalation in bookings.
He says pent up demand for local travel is as a result of “improving sentiment that it’s now safe to travel domestically”.
“Comair’s leisure divisions are reporting the highest demand since the airline began flying again in December,” O’Connor tells Moneyweb.
His sentiments are echoed on the hotel industry front by Graham Wood, COO of hospitality at JSE-listed Sun International.
“Easter is a shorter holiday period compared to December, but it is expected to be busier. In fact, this is the busiest we have been since the initial hard lockdown in March last year,” he says.
“Sun City is completely full for the long weekend, while many of our other hotels and resorts have seen higher bookings,” adds Wood.
He did not want to reveal the group’s overall hotel occupancies, saying Cape Town is doing “OK”.
He says that Sun International’s Table Bay Hotel in the V&A Waterfront is “busier” for the long weekend. But notes that the hotel is still being impacted by Covid-19, as Cape Town is largely dependent on international tourism source markets.
Marcel von Aulock, CEO of JSE-listed Tsogo Sun Hotels, expects hotel occupancies in Cape Town to increase to around 40% overall for Easter.
While this is still low, it is much better than the occupancy rates in February and March, which languished around the 20% mark.
Tsogo Sun Hotels owns brands such as Southern Sun and Garden Court, but also effectively owns landmark hotel properties like The Westin in Cape Town and Radisson Gautrain Hotel in Sandton via its Hospitality Property Fund (HPF) subsidiary.
The broader group, which has over 3 000 hotel rooms in the Mother City, still has several of its hotels closed, such as the Cape Sun. In Sandton, the Intercontinental and Garden Court hotels, which are run by Tsogo, remain closed.
“Cape Town and Sandton are still struggling overall due to the impact of very little international tourism as well as business and conference travel, but these hubs are also seeing an uptick in local leisure hotel bookings for the long weekend,” says von Aulock.
“Durban, which is more aligned to the domestic tourism market, is doing much better overall. We are expecting hotel occupancies of over 60% in Durban for Easter. Tsogo Sun operate around 2 000 hotel rooms on the Durban beachfront,” he adds.
Meanwhile, he says the group’s resort hotels such as the Beverly Hills, Drakensberg Sun, Mount Grace and Arabella Hotel & Spa are “mostly full”.
City Lodge Hotel Group CEO Andrew Widegger believes the Easter long weekend has a “mixed bag”, with some hotels set to do well while others will be quiet.
“It is difficult to say…. City Lodge’s business is very much a case of last-minute leisure bookings in the current market as business travel is still struggling. We are seeing an increasing amount of ‘staycations’ [people staying in hotels in their own cities] at some of our hotels, especially those near entertainment hubs like GrandWest Casino in Cape Town and Montecasino in Fourways,” he says.
“Our group has special rates running up to next weekend, so we are really hoping for good trade during this period. Thankfully President Ramaphosa did not have any further restrictions placed on the hospitality industry over the Easter holidays,” Widegger adds.