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  • Recent memories of sudden flight suspensions and abrupt border closures have caused international travelers to be cautious.
  • Tourists are now booking holidays much closer to their departure time.
  • And this makes it difficult for South African tourism businesses to plan properly without knowing how many visitors will need to be served well ahead of time.
  • The surge in short notice bookings can also make flights and accommodation much more expensive – and scarce – almost overnight.
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Despite the easing of travel restrictions brought on by the pandemic, potential vacationers are booking their trips much closer to their intended departure time, making it difficult for South African tour companies to plan properly.

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the way people travel. Although the widespread suspension of flights, sudden border closures and extended quarantines have been lifted, the memory of these severely disruptive and drastic restrictions remains fresh in the minds of potential travelers.

International travel has yet to return to pre-pandemic levels, although some regions are recovering much faster than others. South Africa has yet to pass the halfway point in resuming overseas arrivals, and the country’s struggling tourism sector is counting on a busy upcoming summer season to speed up its recovery.

See also | SA won’t see as many tourists this summer as it did before Covid, but there will be plenty of visitors

In addition to people not traveling as often as before the pandemic, those who are booking travel are doing so much closer to their planned departure time. These shorter booking times, seen around the world, make it difficult for businesses such as hotels and tour guides to accurately estimate capacity, especially when most have suffered heavy financial losses as they cut staff during the worst of the pandemic.

Tourvest Destination Management, which offers a wide range of services to travelers to several African destinations, including South Africa, has seen a significant change in booking times.

Before the pandemic, travelers were booking trips six months in advance, Tourvest CEO Martin Wiest told Business Insider SA. Travelers are now booking vacations as little as 60 days before their departure date.

“The reason for this is that people do not yet have ultimate confidence in freedom of movement,” Wist said.

“So they book [at] shorter term because they believe their freedom of movement is more predictable closer to time than [at] longer. I personally think it will improve over the next 12 months … people will gain confidence that governments are not doing anything irrational.”

Giltedge Group, the luxury inbound tour operator, has also experienced the growth of fast travel bookings to South Africa. “There’s clearly a shorter window between booking and travel date,” Shawn Kritzinger, executive chairman of Giltedge Group, told Business Insider.

Short notice bookings are a major challenge for South Africa’s tourism sector, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which are already cash-strapped and face tough investment and capacity planning requirements.

“When I look at my [bookings for] September and October are looking very strong, but when I look at my November [onwards], it does not exist. So, am I putting the capacity back into the business, am I putting the costs back into the business, or not?” Wiest said.

“At Tourvest, we’ve made the decision that we’re going to build capacity to sustainably grow the business going forward, but that’s because we’re in the fortunate position of having a very diversified business with relatively deep pockets. If I was small and a small business at the moment, I wouldn’t know what to do because the revenue streams are so unpredictable.”

In addition to making it difficult for businesses to manage cash flow and capacity, significantly shorter delivery times can also cause a spike in the cost and availability of flights and accommodation.

Typically, with a longer lead time, prices gradually increase in the run-up to the busy travel season, with initial demand spread over several months. Travelers rushing to book flights and accommodation within two months of their trip will cause a massive surge in demand.

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