The COVID-19 pandemic undoubtedly threw a wrench in Eswatini’s tourism industry, sending international arrivals plummeting and casting a shadow over GDP. However, like a resilient Phoenix rising from the ashes, the Kingdom embarked on a remarkable journey of recovery, achieving impressive rebounds in both areas.
International Tourist Arrivals
In the height of the pre-pandemic boom in 2019, Eswatini basked in the sunshine of pre-pandemic prosperity, welcoming approximately over a million international visitors (1,225 million). This contributed a healthy 1.2% to the nation’s GDP, showcasing the vital role of tourism in the economy. Unfortunately, the following year saw the dreaded pandemic plunge where the Kingdom witnessed a drastic decline, with arrivals dropping by a staggering 72% from the previous year to record a mere 345 348. Naturally, the tourism sector endured significant hardship. Despite this, the resilience of tourism saw the sector adapting and a turning of the tide in 2022 as Eswatini’s proactive revitalisation efforts bore fruit. Arrivals recorded at 502 541, more than a third of the previous year, marking a strong comeback year.
Current estimates for 2023 indicate a further surge, with projections reaching close to 900,000 international arrivals, reflecting close to 90% of pre-pandemic levels.
Economic Downturn: In tandem with the drop in arrivals, Eswatini’s tourism GDP suffered a decline of 38% in 2020 and 2021, highlighting the pandemic’s economic impact. The sector began to rebound in 2022 as Eswatini’s GDP displayed signs of gradual recovery, with GDP increasing by 28%. On a positive note, the projected upswing economic forecasts for 2023 point towards further acceleration, with tourism GDP anticipated to rise by 30%.
Map to Eswatini Tourism Road Recovery
- Strategic Adaptation: Eswatini’s emphasis on safety protocols, bespoke experiences, and leveraging nature’s allure proved instrumental in attracting tourists back.
- Technology Integration: Virtual tours, social media campaigns, and seamless booking platforms played a crucial role in reaching a wider audience and facilitating travel.
- Recognising the importance of community-based tourism, tour operators partnered with local artisans, guides, and businesses, ensuring fair benefits and empowering communities. This fostered goodwill and created a more authentic travel experience through visitor tailor made packages. Through their resilience, innovation, and unwavering commitment to Eswatini, tour operators have played a pivotal role in the kingdom’s tourism revival. Increased tourist arrivals, thriving local communities, and a heightened appreciation for Eswatini’s treasures are testaments to their vital contribution.
- Community Focus: Empowering local communities and prioritizing sustainability fostered goodwill and ensured a more responsible tourism model.
Key takeaways for 2023
- Leisure travel to Eswatini was heighted driven by Sub-Saharan Africa and Europe, and resulted in a growth of 337,510 in the first 11 months of 2023 when compared the same period in 2022.
- Enduring lockdowns has resulted in a newfound zest for travel ‘revenge travel’, leading to a trend of seeking unique and personalized experiences, and longer and more frequent travels which is accompanied by a willing to spend more.
- This newfound zest has multiplied the number of travel agents and tour operators in Eswatini and translating to a rise in demand for domestic, inbound and outbound holiday packages.
- Overall, Eswatini tourism has recovered to 80% of pre-pandemic levels in January-November 2023, with over 760,000 visitors having travelled to Eswatini during this period. This then puts the sector on course to approach 90% by the end of this year.
Changes in consumer behaviour post the pandemic
- The rising inflation and higher living costs have led to the exploration of easy and flexible ways to pay. The rise in holidays that are booked digitally is increasingly being accompanied by an emergence of more convenient payment methods and even split payments which allow travelers to divide the cost of a holiday into manageable instalments.
- Pent-up demand will continue with regional travelers expected to drive bookings in 2024, as economic challenges such as high inflation, increased fuel prices and diminishing household income resulting in travelers opting to explore destinations closer to home.
- The turbulent few years many travelers now have a renewed focus on health and well-being, translating to increased interest in traditional wellness disciplines such as spa, movement and nutrition.
- Social media is expected to continue being a popular method to map out travel plans, with four out of ten Gen Z consumers using these platforms to make travel plans and bookings in 2023.
Eswatini’s post-COVID festival revival was not just about entertainment with the return of renown festivals such as Bushfire, Standard Bank Luju and Lifestyle and Swazi Rally and also the Eswatini International Trade Fair; it is about strategic tourism revitalisation. By catering to diverse interests, showcasing cultural richness though Umhlanga, Buganu and Incwala, and stimulating economic activity, these events play a crucial role in propelling the kingdom’s tourism sector forward. As Eswatini continues to host these vibrant celebrations, its unique charm and captivating experiences will undoubtedly draw even more travellers to its shores, leaving an indelible mark on the global tourism map.
Eswatini’s tourism comeback story is far from over. With continued advancements and a steadfast commitment to responsible tourism, the Kingdom is poised to soar even higher. The future promises increased tourist arrivals, robust GDP growth, and a thriving industry that benefits both the environment and local communities. Eswatini’s journey from scourge to sojourn offers valuable lessons for destinations worldwide, showcasing the power of resilience, innovation, and community in turning adversity into triumph.
Eswatini Tourism Authority continues to drive its mandate to encourage responsible travel in the Kingdom of Eswatini and promotes Eswatini as a preferred destination.