Airline ticket pricing first interaction with a destination: Why the Cape Town direct flight to New York is important

You might start seeing a few more 'Mericans roaming the streets of Cape Town soon - as a new direct route between the Mother City and New York will be taking to the skies in December. 

Announced in April, the seasonal route will be operated by United Airlines - their only route to Africa after they ended their Nigerian route a few years ago - and will operate between Cape Town International Airport and Newark Liberty International from 15 December. 

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It will be a three-times-weekly service on Sunday, Wednesday and Friday from Newark, departing at 20:30 and arriving in Cape Town the next day at 18:00, and will depart again at 20:50 and arrive in Newark at 5:45. The flights will be serviced by a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner.

It will cut travel time by eight hours for a round trip flight.

This is just another feather in the cap for the Cape Town Air Access team, making this their 15th new direct route since they started in 2015. According to Wesgro CEO Tim Harris, the new route is projected to bring in R425 million in direct tourism spending to the province by 2021, and R238 million in the first year of operation.

"By expanding air connectivity, we can expand opportunities for people, especially youth," said David Maynier, Western Cape Minister for Finance and Economic Opportunities, at the launch. 

It's also expected to grow the US market by 20%, create 890 new jobs in the province in the first year and drastically increase cargo capacity between the two countries. 

"We are grateful for the work done by our partners, especially the direct air access team," lauded the city's mayor Dan Plato. 

"We see Cape Town, South Africa, as the gateway to Africa, and we have a lot to offer to the rest of the world." 

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Why a direct route to New York?

Americans are the third largest source market for tourists in Western Cape, after the UK and Germany, and while there has only been a 2% increase in passengers between 2017 and 2018, Business Class passengers grew by 19% in that same period.

Despite these numbers, New York is one of Cape Town's most unserved markets, followed by Brussels and Hamburg. Harris also noted that US travellers are also not beholden to seasonal travel - their numbers remain quite consistent throughout the year, even in the off-peak seasons when the city becomes a bit chilly. 

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And not only will a direct route boost tourism numbers, it will also boost trade exports and imports. Western Cape sells more to the US than it imports, and the US is its third biggest export market. The top six exports from the province to the US are products of iron or non-alloy steel, jewellery of precious metal, engine parts, citrus fruit, wine and yachts.

There will be a push to turn the seasonal route into a year-long route, but this is dependent on regular two-way traffic between the two countries. While marketing the US as a leisure destination to South Africans with the weak rand might be tough, the focus from SA Tourism's side will instead be on the lucrative business travel sector.

Another point made by Harris was that the success of the air access programme is the public-private partnership involved in route development, something that is unique in the world. 

"We are competing with thousands of destinations around the world."

"It is important to know what's happening in the business sector when meeting with airlines, which is why you need a collaborative approach."

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What it means for South Africa as a whole

But the benefits won't only be reaped by Western Cape.

For SA Tourism's acting CEO Sthembiso Dlamini, direct air access is the best way to grow brand awareness of a country. 

"Air access is very important in the business of tourism, which is a key economic growth factor for South Africa," said Dlamini at the launch. 

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SA Tourism has plans and campaigns in place on the ground to drive traffic for the December launch.

"One of the key barriers to travel to South Africa is that it is too costly to get here from an airline's point of view. So the first interaction a tourist or potential traveller has with a destination is through an airline ticket."

"A lot of people say 'you are not affordable', but these issues are around perception. When you look at the currency or exchange rate, you get a lot of value for experiences using the dollar in South Africa."

Other barriers highlighted by Dlamini are the appeal of other destinations over South Africa, concerns for personal safety and uncertain political climate - but these are, again, all an issue of perception according to Dlamini.

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International visitors to SA saw a marked decrease of 1.3% between January and April 2019 compared to last year, while the domestic market saw an increase. SA Tourism plans to capitalise on this by reviving the 'We Do Tourism' campaign this year and getting corporates that aren't necessarily in the tourism sector involved. 

"We want to ensure that South Africans understand the value of tourism and the role that they need to play in ensuring that this sector grows," says Dlamini. 

While the US market saw a growth between 2016 and 2018 of 4.5%, major market China saw a 9% decline, which Dlamini claims is partly because the Chinese traveller doesn't like layovers and want to fly direct. 

She also noted that forward bookings were down for January almost 10%, as the peak booking period for this time took place during the drought crisis in Cape Town. 

Besides the national markets, SA Tourism also wants to focus on special interest groups, LGBTQ+ travellers, repeat travellers, millennials and the meetings, conferences and events sector.

Most US visitors travel to Western Cape, Gauteng and Mpumalanga, with traction seen in Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape. SA Tourism will put their effort into showcasing those showing growth like the last three. 

"We must look at what are the new products and experiences that we can start packaging so that South Africa presents a variety of products that people are looking for."

SA Tourism's plan of action is to "create desire through giving the traveller a vivid sense of the real South Africa before they visit" and "build confidence through giving access to real information that excites people about the country and dispels concerns". For the US - and Canada - they want to market South Africa as an "ultimate adventure destination".

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