Those lucky enough to have some extra cash for a December holiday – and who are not beholden to spending Christmas with their in-laws in rural areas – consider this: More than 1.2 billion international tourists crossed the globe last year.
And in some places, it really shows.
Many can’t-miss international holiday hot spots have become seriously stressful, choked by tour bus exhaust fumes, and dogged by absurdly high prices and long queues.
Ethical implications arise from mass tourism and for residents living in the vacation location as holiday time can become a living hell, with skyrocketing rents, overpriced tourism operations and congested roads.
Just ask Capetonians.
The concept of “overtourism” describes a situation in which hosts feel too many visitors are causing their quality of life to deteriorate.
And while tourism may be having a negative effect on life in global holiday favourites from Venice to Vietnam, is South Africa one of them?
The numbers are still relatively small.
Government statistics show there were 10 million international tourist arrivals last year, most from neighbouring African countries and only 2.5 million big-spending overseas leisure tourists.
To put that into perspective, Thailand had 32.5 million leisure tourists and France 70 million.
We probably won’t experience a crush anytime soon, thanks to our distance from Europe and the US, but our numbers are still up.
Last year, overseas leisure arrivals rose by 18% (above an international average of 3%).
Terrorism in the northern hemisphere meant British travel agency Thomas Cook sent 3 million fewer visitors to Turkey last year than in 2015.
Those people had to go somewhere, and quite a few of them came to South Africa.
The problem is that almost all of them ended up in one of two places: Cape Town or the Kruger National Park.
No matter what the numbers say, when half the world and his uncle are in a traffic jam in front of the same lion 5m from the Kruger Park’s Orpen Gate, or trying to get the same cocktail waiter to take an order in a Camps Bay café, it feels unpleasantly packed.
More to the point, Cape Town has a water crisis.
Mike Muller, former director-general of the department of water and sanitation and now a visiting professor at Wits University, says people should not visit Cape Town this summer.
While locals are living on 87 litres a day, tourists have few restrictions in hotels and guest houses – aside from pleas from staff to save the stuff.
“Tourists contribute to a peak in water demand, which puts extra pressure on supplies.
"This is aggravated by the fact that they like to visit when it is hot and sunny – and there is no rain,” he says.
“While Cape Town’s tourism is generally good for the economy, running out of water would be really bad.
"Extreme restrictions are a real possibility unless there are some seriously good storms over the next few months.
“So, balance the economic cost of a season’s losses against the brand impact of rather unpleasant unwashed holidays and I think we should encourage people to skip Cape Town this year.
"Next year, they can go back. Cape Town will spend a few billion rands on desalination plants and then it will rain and they will all be mothballed because the dams will be full again [as happened in Australia after their great drought panic over the past decade].”
Broaden their horizons
So what do we do?
We undoubtedly need strategies to spread tourists out. The trouble is that a lot of them don’t want to be spread.
Many first-timers heading for Cape Town have their hearts set on the Robben Island-V&A Waterfront-wine farm-Clifton-Table Mountain combo, garnished with bubble baths and swimming pools.
Wildlife junkies want to see all the Big Five on their first safari.
International guests keep coming to South Africa, a holiday destination that generally under-promises and over-delivers.
One visit and they’re hooked. Second and third holidays in South Africa are common.
So why not broaden their horizons to the Eastern Cape’s Wild Coast?
Rather than hang out with the hordes in Clifton, they can luxuriate in the solitude of the Dwesa and Cwebe nature reserves, where they can have the beaches to themselves.
There are only five places in the world where waterfalls plunge directly into the sea, and three of them are on the Wild Coast.
At Mkambati and Waterfall Bluff, tourists can swim underneath the splashing splendour.
Hluleka beach in Ngqeleni is bounded by coastal forest, and offers superb whale and dolphin watching opportunities.
But many tourists wait and wait and wait for the Robben Island ferry. Then the boat breaks down and they wait some more.
In Graaff-Reinet, Mount Camdeboo Private Game Reserve is less expensive and much nicer than most of the lodges in the Kruger National Park.
Five-star food complements the sight of cheetah, white rhino, wild cats and the Sneeuberg mountains.
At Esiweni Luxury Safari Lodge in KwaZulu-Natal’s Nambiti Big 5 Private Game Reserve, there is gin and tonic (or whisky-infused hot chocolate with marshmallows on cold days) on game drives and contemporary South African cuisine.
Tourism is a jobs-rich activity that must be on our national economic development plan.
All those Thomas Cookites who came here last year should be persuaded to come back and see what else we have to offer – in parts of the country with water.
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