People in the times of the coronavirus crisis – Eyewitness Bheki Dube in South Africa

Cape Town. Durban. Johannesburg. All popular places to visit in South Africa. The world cannot travel right now. South Africa closed her borders for tourists. We get fresh news every day. The coronavirus situation changes all the time. As soon as there is news about the latest research, we get to hear about it. There is enough information out there to be prepared for this situation. The situation is sad, tragic, and true, also scary. No one does really know what to do next, as the situation changes constantly. We live in exciting times. It helps to be spontaneous enough to adapt to change.

We cannot go to South Africa right now, but we can ask the locals about their country.

A man sitting on a coral coloured sofa next to a white lampstand, a black hat and an open book on the table in front of him.
Archive photo Bheki Dube

People in the times of the coronavirus crisis – Eyewitness Bheki Dube in South Africa

Curiocity is a network of African design hostels and boutique hotels. They connect the curious traveller to what is exciting, inspiring, and real in Durban, Johannesburg, and Cape Town. Its founder is Bheki Dube from Johannesburg. The first hostel was opened in 2013 and over the course of only a few years, Bheki definitely created positive change for South Africa with his vision and his work. He is the winner of the Tropics Change Maker Awards for the Best Tourism Entrepreneur. The award recognizes exceptional efforts of inspiring leaders, and innovative initiatives and partnerships across key business sectors driving African economies.

Bheki Dube, tourism entrepreneur and founder of Curiocity opened his latest hotel in November 2019 in magnificent Cape Town. Right. Opening a hotel at the beginning of the summer season? That is impeccable timing. That the opening was followed by the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic is not only unlucky, but it also sounds as if made up in a fictional story. Bheki tells us about his life during the coronavirus crisis, he tells about changing strategy, and what keeps him going.

Coronavirus crisis in South Africa – Face masks and permits

I am interested in what is expected from locals during ‘lockdown’ in South Africa, and Bheki explains “What has been really expected from locals during the lockdown and South Africa, one is to obviously follow the protocol of the government and the World Health Organisation instructions.

So one, being able to wash your hands thoroughly, don't touch your mouth, your face, use sanitizers but also just from a lockdown perspective really up until to date and up until really the 1st of May since the last 33 days, is that people are expected to be at home.

The only people that can go out are essential services. So, meaning doctors, nurses, people working within the healthcare, and then also people working in grocery stores allowed to trade between a certain time. South African citizens are only allowed to navigate or move to buy groceries or essential goods. So, no retail, no exercise, no leisure. It is really strictly if you are going to the shops, and if you are going to the shops you must be carrying a shopping bag. If you are going to visit the doctor, you might have some sort of confirmation. If you are an operating a business that is regarded as an essential service, you should be having a permit from the government that allows you to navigate during this time.”

Update, according to the official Twitter page of The Presidency of the Republic of South Africa "South Africa will be placed on alert level 3 from 1st June 2020. Public gatherings and other high-risk activities, especially those that involve close contact between large numbers of people, remain prohibited to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. ... All borders of the republic remain closed except for the transportation of goods and repatriation of citizens"

Solitude is a chance

The world is in a state of emergency, people do lots of different things to get through this crisis, some start learning a language, others learn to play an instrument, some get through this with writing a novel or baking banana bread. It is always inspiring to hear what others around us do, and how they experience this crisis. Bheki says: “The natural thing for me that I saw myself doing really during this time was going back to the word and the word for me really is poetry. And I found myself really going back to the writings of a very celebrated South African playwright and poet called Lesego Rampolokeng. I really found a bit of solitude and safe space by just going back to poetry and I guess it resonates to almost that desire in why I started what I started, you know the idea of just storytelling.

So I naturally just found myself saying let me not get too concerned with immediately with different scenarios and how to deal with and how do you change the business model but I found myself leaning towards poetry and finding a space off just solitude there and wisdom and calmness. And that has been a big and interesting, almost safe haven for me, to find some sort of peace. How do I experience this crisis is a very tricky one because you almost experience within the four doors, the four walls you know that you are confined in and through what I refer to now really is digital pollution. So, there is a lot of content out there digitally that you know every 15 minutes it is like a webinar or a Zoom call, so it becomes a bit intense that way.”

Culture, the great outdoors, and sunshine at Curiocity

Never stop dreaming. It makes me wonder what would Curiocity guests (in non-coronavirus crisis times) experience this time of the year if they were in South Africa right now and Bheki’s word really make me want to be in South Africa right now. “I mean we are in a very interesting time during this time because it's obviously February - March - April - May is really a good time, almost peak season, before you reach June which is our low season. So, during this time many people are experiencing the last final bit of sunshine, of outdoor activities, of nature, of cultural activities within our sites, great programming, and curated experiences within the Curiocity sites itself. There is a lot of international groups that start to travel during this time as well. So, a lot of programming from day to day tours and activities at each hostel or each hotel to curated and tailor-made activities that one would just take part in.”

Share more stories about the history of South Africa

Running hotels, being responsible for running hotels, one is used to be around people all the time. Tourists cannot visit South Africa right now, it must feel somewhat odd. Bheki agrees and says “For the last seven years of my life I've just been surrounded by people, be it's me guiding people on a tour, be it coming back to the accommodations and hosting either an evening activity or we have got a band or poet on-site and really just giving hospitality to our clients and our guests. And this particular time has been really strange. I find myself missing moments where we have created activities at Curiocity but also, it has been a moment of almost some sort of self-care where you reflect within and you nourish the soul, you know? So, as I said earlier and part of nourishing that is all just going back to reading poetry, also reading about my own history. So that when the time allows, when we start opening up again, I have got many more stories to share with the people that will be staying with us or that we will be encountering.”

South Africa - This crisis is different

There is never a dull moment in South Africa, everyone who ever visited the country knows that. Bheki says about the current situation “I think in South Africa you know you have got things like riots. We had xenophobic attacks that have also sometimes affected business itself. But this particular crisis of the coronavirus has really been very different to any other crisis.

You know I opened Curiocity seven years ago, but I have been in tourism at least now for ten years since 2010 and doing tours first before I opened my accommodation site. This is definitely by far probably the worst circumstances that I ever come across in my life. I mean the ability to trade the business zero % I have never come across that you know. When I opened Curiocity, I remember the first day when I opened my site, I already had guests wanting to stay before the construction site in Johannesburg was finished. Same as Durban, people were moving into sites before construction was done as well as Cape Town. So, to really wake up one day and you see bookings dropped from 75 to 40 %, dropped 30 to five percent and then eventually get a 0 mark, these are really unnormal circumstances.”

The time has come for locals to explore South Africa

There are voices who say, 'enough already,' meaning they are ready for business and to travel the world again. Everyone certainly wishes this situation to be over rather sooner than later, but we cannot make the virus go away just by closing our eyes, clicking our heels together, and wishing for it. We can wish what we want, and for as long as we want. Still, that is not how this coronavirus can be stopped. The world needs a vaccine, a cure, or a thorough plan of how to best live with the virus in the coming years. Words are cheap, but words are not enough.

If one can travel at all, for the coming months, this would be in their own country only. There is talk whether Australians can visit New Zealand and vice versa or whether Austrians can pop over to Germany. Nothing has been decided yet. It all depends on how many new positive corona cases there are. For the foreseeable future, it looks as if people can travel within their country only. Worldwide, domestic travel is the latest obsession (obsession in the most positive sense).

Bheki shares his rather realistic view of how the future of tourism in South Africa can look. He sees great opportunities for his fellow South Africans in the upcoming months.

“Yeah, I think I have taken a very long-term view in terms of tourism. I think it will only start normalising between 18 to 24 months from now. What we will see happen probably in the next six months is an interesting trend in the domestic market where the domestic market starts to really explore their backyard which has not been the case in South Africa. Normally we have international people understanding South Africa better than locals. So I think what the Corona pandemic has done or what it will do is that it will start forcing people to explore their backyard and it is a good thing because now people have a positive story to tell about their own country (rather than international people knowing South Africa better than the locals). I think the next six months will see local trade and then slowly I think probably in month 12 we are going to start seeing business international trade happening. And then I think from 18th month to 24th month we going to start seeing than the leisure market itself starting to come back into the spaces that we currently host guest in."

The world belongs to the ones who embrace change

Many people thrive in times of crisis and create new opportunities by acting spontaneously. The world belongs to the ones who do not fear change. Bheki agrees. “For sure, I think we plan on doing things differently. This whole coronavirus thing what it has done it has really completely made me zoom in close into the business and really reconfigure the business model. So, I think we might see ourselves changing some of our hotels into short term residential accommodation. We are going to introduce long term residential accommodation. You get the students accommodation as an option. And then obviously between now and when up until the coronavirus situation is sorted using the site as quarantine sites or isolation sites, so those are some of the strategies that we already put in place.”

Hotels turned into quarantine zones

Worldwide, the tourism industry depends to a certain extent on the global economy. Right now, no one travels, the tourism industry suffers heavily. Germany, for example, made 50 billion EUR available for small and micro-entrepreneurs. Companies, self-employed and freelancers with up to five employees receive a one-time payment of up to 9,000 EUR for three months. People receive support always and only in relation to how much tax they pay respectively how much tax they paid so far. It all differs from country to country, and it largely depends on the system and about what security nets are available to taxpayers. What about businesses in South Africa experiencing problems due to the coronavirus crisis and is there help available for businesses in South Africa?

“Yeah, the tourism business really depends on the global economy and that is going to be a shift now you know. We have not really had much assistance within the business community of South Africa. I think what we are seeing happen really now is private sector companies like Curiocity coming up with innovative ideas and trying to help themselves, or even trying to help the government you know. I sit on a lot of panels both in the private and the government level where we are trying to come up with solutions and saying how do we help the government get out of this mess or how do we help the government have people stay in our hotels as quarantine zones or as military bases and so forth. Those are some of the strategies that we are looking at.”

The map of Africa next to a stack of African travel guide books in front of a magenta coloured wallpaper featuring black cats.

A Pan-Africanist at heart

We can blend out the coronavirus crisis and pretend it never got to us. I think about this all the time. Where would I go to? What would I have done? How would it have been? Dreaming of trips is simply the best. There is always a road trip or adventure I can imagine, the same can be said about Bheki Dube.

“So, yeah you know like I opened Curiocity Joburg in the year 2013 and then in 2016 I opened Curiocity Durban and then in November 2019 I opened Curiocity Cape Town.

One of my dreams really was during the month of April to take a road trip across South Africa. So, really starting from Johannesburg through the beautiful Drakensberg mountains. Surfing in Durban and staying at Curiocity. Piercing through the Eastern Cape and stay at wild Lubanzi and the wild coast. Then, really understand how people in rural communities exist. And then, driving through from there, piercing through the garden route all the way up to Cape Town. That was the initial ideal dream trip that I wanted to do across South Africa. And then also. I am a Pan-Africanist at the core and at heart, and I wanted to pierce through and travel to other African countries out of all this love to go to.”

Have staying power and believe in each other

Before Bheki goes he shares a message with old and new friends and guests. “I think the message to our old or new guests and friends and part of our community is to almost be calm right now and have perseverance, and never stop the desire to travel or imagine. Cause when things get lifted, we will be able to come back together again as a community and share long-lived life experiences and memories and get to learn about each other again.”

Check out the Curiocity website and learn more about this exciting design hotel- and hostel group. See when they are going to be open again. Next time you are in South Africa, make sure to visit Curiocity, be it for a drink, for an event or to stay with them.

Looking for more stories from South Africa? Dream now - Travel later

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