In less than a month, the first United Airlines flight from New York to Cape Town will touch down, bringing with it the opportunity to grow one of South Africa's major tourism markets.
At a quick briefing ahead of the groundbreaking flight, Bob Schumacher - United's regional managing director of sales - congratulated everyone involved for embracing the route wholeheartedly as United's first, and only, flight to Africa in decades.
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In the US, Cape Town has been marketed as a 'bucket list' destination, focusing on Americans' wanderlust and sense of discovery. While the flight will only run during Cape Town's summer season focused more on leisure travellers, Schumacher also expects business connectivity to be encouraged during this time.
The US a key economic driver
And the city is already seeing the rewards - according to Wesgro CEO Tim Harris, forward bookings for the US market in Cape Town is up by 11% for the November to May period, showing the resilience of the American tourist market. Between 2014 and 2018, there had already been a 16% increase in US-Cape Town inbound travellers, and Harris also added that Cape Town is back on track in terms of tourism growth targets after recovery from the drought.
StatsSA revealed a drop of 2% in overseas tourist arrivals from January to August this year. This is even further down after we saw a 1.3% drop in overseas visitors from January to August 2018.
In August 2019, the distribution of overseas tourists was as follows: Europe, 118 657 (55.7%); North America, 39 448 (18.5%); Asia, 26 265 (12.3%); Australasia, 11 368 (5.3%); Central and South America, 9 806 (4.6%); and the Middle East, 7 530 (3.5%).
They also forecast 500 new jobs within the first year of operation, and the potential United might open up an office in the city if the route proves successful.
"The United States is a key tourism and business market for the province, and we look forward to welcoming United's customers to Cape Town and the Western Cape," said Western Cape provincial minister of finance and economic opportunities David Maynier.
"This new service will open up the US and North American markets to opportunities in the Western Cape and significantly contribute towards growing our tourism sector and stimulating economic growth in the Western Cape."
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United has codeshare agreements with Lufthansa and Air Canada, and offers the most international destinations from New York City than any other US airline, which could further increase connectivity to South Africa via Cape Town. However they have no agreements in place yet with domestic airlines in South Africa to help fly passengers to other parts of the country.
The airline also has no plans yet to expand to the rest of Africa, although many spots have great potential for when timing, opportunity and fleet availability is just right, says Schumacher.
But will the route become full-time?
Schumacher hopes so, although he didn't specify what load factor is needed to increase capacity for the route year-round. While tickets are still available for the first flight, Schumacher also believes it will pick up even more from January as more people become aware of the new offering.
Shaving four hours off current travel times, the first direct flight from New York is scheduled to arrive in Cape Town on 16 December, with three flights planned weekly until the end of March 2020. The flight will be operated by a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner with Business Class, Economy Plus and normal Economy.
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Compiled by Gabi Zietsman
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