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South Africa’s wine tourism sector was one of those hardest hit by local restrictions on the sale of liquor since March 2020. However, true to its spirit, the industry is more determined than ever to get its wine tourism destinations back on track.

It is estimated that South Africa’s wine tourism sector lost more than R3.7 billion in wine tourism revenue from March to October 2020 due to Covid-19 restrictions – a sector that is crucial to sustaining the economy and livelihoods of more than 36 000 people. While the serving and sale of wine at these establishments have been reopened since February – with the exception of a ban of off-consumption sales over Easter Weekend – they are still not operating at optimal capacity and will struggle to recover lost revenue.

“Our wine farms were ready to trade safely and responsibly – with extensive health and safety protocols in place – once the restrictions were relaxed,” says Marisah Nieuwoudt, wine tourism manager at Vinpro. “Because people were eager to get out, and most farms were just a few minutes’ drive from their homes, we’ve had a lot of feet coming in. However, due to continued spatial constraints, wineries can still only take in 50% of their normal capacity, resulting in lower revenue at a time when we want to make up for the past year’s losses.”

Although wine is the main focus, restaurants and accommodation on average contribute 45% of the turnover at these wine tourism destinations. A restaurant or accommodation booking is an intangible product to sell, and linked to time. “Once a booking has to be cancelled due to Covid-19 restrictions on travel, we can’t resell that same booking as you would be able to put an unsold bottle of wine back on the shelf. Once it’s lost, it’s lost forever,” Marisah says.

On the plus side, domestic arrivals at Cape Town airport have started picking up from September last year, along with international arrivals (albeit from a much lower base). Winelands accommodation figures have followed suit. “We now need to grasp and get the most out of any opportunity for recovery and growth that comes our way,” Marisah says.

While wine tourism destinations have certainly shown their resilience, creativity and innovation in the way they entice new and loyal visitors, industry organisations have been working diligently behind the scenes to help stimulate recovery.

Vinpro and its partners in tourism, including the South African Wine Routes Forum and destination marketing organisations such as Wesgro and SA Tourism (SAT) collectively focus on sustaining supply, reigniting demand and strengthening capacity – focus areas that are aligned with the National Department of Tourism’s Tourism Recovery Strategy post Covid-19.

“Whatever we do, we need to ensure that it’s not a knee-jerk reaction, but rather something that will address challenges now, but will stand us in good stead going forward,” Marisah says.

Sustain supply

“Essentially we need to ensure our doors are open so that visitors have somewhere to go once they’re in the winelands,” Marisah says.

One initiative that helped businesses stay open while keeping their people employed, was the approval of a R12 million Wine Tourism Worker Support Stipend (WTWSS) by the Western Cape Department of Agriculture. More than 1 300 permanent wine tourism employees were set to benefit from this stipend of R3 000 per person per month from December to February, of which 85% had already been paid out by the end of March.

 

“WTWSS helped us keep our people employed”

Beneficiaries of the WTWSS share their experience:

“We are a very small wine and guest estate, and are completed owner-funded. At a time when where there was virtually no support for the wine industry, Vinpro and the Western Cape Department of Agriculture brought some much needed relief to our world. By the time the tourism high season started, much of our resources had already been depleted. Our number 1 concern has always been to keep our staff employed. I could almost not believe how blessed we were when Vinpro told us our application was successful. The stipend brought some much needed breathing space, as well as motivation to keep trying in the new year.”
Theresa Visser, owner of Lovane Boutique Wine Estate and Guesthouse

“The WTWSS funding’s timing coincided perfectly with the second wave of Covid-19 and allowed us to keep our staff and not retrench anyone during what would traditionally be our busiest time. This is normally a time when we build our reserves for quieter months. For the staff we could put some of them on leave with the peace of mind that they still had a job to return to.”
Carolyn Martin, co-owner of Creation Wines

 

“We are so blessed and grateful to have received the WTWSS funding. It feels as though we were dealt a double blow – both in terms of the ban on local liquor sales and restrictions that negatively affected our hospitality revenue stream. At the time we heard about the fund, we were almost out of options, not being able to procure any loans or plan around Covid restrictions. The grant has been a godsend and has enabled us to keep our people employed and protect their livelihoods in these difficult and uncertain times. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts to Vinpro and the Western Cape Department of Agriculture. We will never forget your support and will follow your example by ploughing back into the industry once we’re back on our feet.”
Denise Stubbs, managing director of Thokozani Wines & Hospitality

Wine tourism destinations also ensured business continuity by implementing and training staff on a set of strict health and safety protocols that were developed for this sector. As such, South Africa received the World Travel and Tourism Council’s (WTTC) Global Safety Stamp of Approval in August 2020 for implementing health and hygiene protocols aligned with global standards.

“In our advocacy with Government, our aim has also been to de-risk high value, low risk services. For example keeping open self-catering accommodation poses a low risk in terms of spreading the virus, while earning a higher revenue, compared to the same group doing a wine tasting.”

Vinpro and its partners actively participate in regulatory matters such as Government’s proposal to set the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level for drivers to 0% compared to the current 0.05%. “This would have an adverse effect on wine tourism activity at a time that we can’t afford another setback,” Marisah says.

Reignite demand

While the Visit Winelands platform, individual wine routes and destination marketing organisations such as Wesgro and SAT continuously market South Africa’s winelands as open, safe and welcoming, they are also collaborating on targeted campaigns aimed at reigniting demand from both local and overseas visitors.

“Wine tourism is increasingly included in destination marketing campaigns by organisations. Wesgro is, for example, shooting video footage in the winelands in April as part of an international marketing campaign,” Marisah says. “Through Wesgro, South Africa also became a member of the Great Wine Capitals Network, which really positions us as a world-class wine tourism destination.”

However, the trick is now to get the timing of marketing campaigns just right. “If you do it while other countries are in lockdown, you will seem insensitive; if you do it while you’re in lockdown it seems nonsensical. This is a universal problem and we might even see multiple global tourism destinations opening up at the same time, which makes it tough to compete.”

Apart from being included in broader tourism campaigns, the sector has also submitted funding proposals to Government for dedicated international and domestic marketing campaigns focusing on wine tourism specifically. “Locally we would look at the high potential consumer segments highlighted in the recent Moss Group consumer segmentation, taking commonalities with regard to travel and tourism into account. For international marketing, we would focus primarily on people visiting friends and family (many of them expats), migratory ‘swallows’ who stay for longer periods and are familiar with the country, and repeat visitors.”

Strengthen capability

“We’ve ensured that we have sufficient, high quality and safe wine tourism destinations with enough staff to welcome them, and we’ve whet visitors’ appetites to explore our winelands. But that’s not all – we also help businesses strengthen their core to build resilience and help them mitigate risks going forward,” Marisah says.

In 2019 Vinpro, with support from the Cape Winelands District Municipality (CWDM), rolled out a free digital resource for wine tourism destinations, the Wine Tourism Toolkit. This was followed by a number of regional workshops at the end of 2019 on the practical aspects of running a wine tourism establishment. In 2020, based on needs identified during these sessions and in light of a growing trend, Vinpro collaborated with Wine Tourism Australia and Commerce 7 on a series of digital workshops focused on boosting direct to consumer sales.

“We’re also calling on all wine tourism establishments and their staff to participate in the nationwide Wine Tourism Skills Survey by 14 May 2021 to gage their team’s proficiencies, while enabling us to prioritise areas for further training and development,” Marisah says. The skills survey and training – only available to those who have participated in the survey – are made possible by the CWDM and integrated with Winetech’s Learning & Development goals and platform.

“Wine Route Information Sessions are being held across the country – even as far as the Northern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal – from 12 to 27 April to raise awareness of this important skills audit. Contact your nearest wine route manager or email marisah@vinpro.co.za to attend,” Marisah says.

Finally, the wine tourism sector is in the process of redeveloping its strategy to ensure that it is even more resilient, robust and ready to mitigate risks than ever before.

 

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