In early April, Brand Africa founder Thebe Ikalafeng shared his insights in a presentation called Building Brands through the Crisis. He looked at what brands should be doing during the coronavirus crisis and shared the image below. It shows the industries most likely to take a knock and those most likely to thrive. Tourism sits right at the top of the pile taking a knock. (Thebe’s full presentation here)
Tourism in Malawi has taken that knock. Hotel room bookings are down, conferences have been suspended and patronage to recreation facilities is poor. The same can be said for tourism worldwide. And things are not about to get better any time soon.
The scenario in Malawi gets rather complicated and quite difficult to predict. On one hand, there is lax enforcement of social distancing restrictions. On the other hand, infection rates are lower than in other countries around the world. Talking to one health professional, he said that the trend is rather interesting and could point to any number of things including a possible mutation of the virus. He did, however, caution that the upcoming winter season could change this trend. We are not out of the woods just yet. But this just adds to the uncertainty of what we should be preparing for – back to some ‘normality’ or a lockdown of sorts.
If the coronavirus situation in Malawi improves early we have to remember that we don’t live in isolation. We look to western and eastern markets for tourists to visit our beautiful country. This reliance on international visitors to keep the industry afloat is now clearly unsustainable. With airports and borders closed, even the regional market has dried up for now. Revenue generated from meetings and conferences is at a low and may never return to pre-coronavirus levels. Add to that the hit on overflow business to pubs, restaurants, car hire and others.
Tourism stakeholders, operators and properties need to think local and think differently if they are to survive. They have to rethink domestic tourism in Malawi. It is a sink or swim situation.
It is not difficult to see on social media that the smaller tourism players make concerted efforts to promote domestic tourism through short, reasonably priced local excursions and tours. More has to be done though. Pricing is one area.
A lodge owner was marketing his lakeside cottage on Twitter recently. His prices were quoted in US dollars. When asked what the Malawi Kwacha price was he stated that it depends on the exchange rate of the day. With borders shut, why should his rate be pegged to foreign currency when it is clear he is marketing to the domestic market? The same goes for entrance and camping fees I saw at a national park – they were in dollars. It makes little sense if you are trying to attract locals and promote domestic tourism.
Rates that are out of reach of your target market is another put-off.
Shorter work week?
In New Zealand, prime minister Jacinta Arden wants employers in her country to consider switching to a four day work week as a way to promote tourism, which has been hard hit by the pandemic. She is encouraging employers “to think about whether or not that is something that would work for their workplace because it certainly would help tourism all around the country.”
Now that is a bold request to make but obviously, one that stands to benefit the tourism industry and ultimately the country. Would such an arrangement work in Malawi? Would promotion of remote working, as an alternative, allow employees to take long weekends away in Majete or Nkhotakota game reserves? Is the electricity and telecommunications infrastructure in Nyika and Chintheche able to make such kind of remote work feasible? Would tourism properties be willing to provide such facilities at little or no extra cost? Most importantly, are Malawians willing to take up such offers if they were presented to us?
Or should we just get a bit more realistic and simply redesign our tourism products to suit domestic travellers? Would incorporation of self-catering options into lodging packages make lodging more affordable? Perhaps accepting payment in instalments would be an enticing enough incentive. Could collaboration, rather than competition, by different complementary operators to offer an all-inclusive package work? Fix public transport to enable easy and affordable access to tourist facilities?
There have been calls to African governments to take action to ease visa restrictions and open up the skies for intra-Africa travel. Africa is, after all, a 1 billion person market! When travel restrictions are eased and borders are opened once again, this kind of action could open up the possibilities for regional travel and collaboration between players in different countries.
As lockdowns around the world have been extended there has been an increase in online conferences and workshops. Conference speakers have changed their models and are now sharing their expertise with virtual audiences. Will this model be adopted here in Malawi? Music concerts are also being held online. Will we see the Tumaini Festival being held in cyberspace soon? If we do, what will happen to the investments that have been made in eventing facilities? Difficult to say. It is food for thought on how we utilise these structures if the MICE industry shifts into the virtual space. And an opportunity for new players into the market.
Because there is nothing better to do right now. Tourism players need to work on their digital platforms, tell stories and engage their audience.
Sales and marketing – The Future of Wine Tourism Webinar by @DestinateTravel – @Mashstartup has some advice in this scary terrain. “Invest in social media, build your community, entrepreneurs + small business need to invest in digital + rely less on physical spaces”
— #StayHomeSouthAfrica (@Melanie_vanZyl) May 21, 2020
What are your thoughts on domestic tourism in Malawi? I would love to hear them in the comments below.
To receive a monthly roundup of stories from the #LifeUnbound blog and other gems subscribe below.