Cape Town drought: Should travelers still visit?

Cape Town's reputation as a glossy travel magazine cover star has taken a hit...

Posted: Feb 16, 2018 3:47 PM
Updated: Feb 16, 2018 3:47 PM

Cape Town's reputation as a glossy travel magazine cover star has taken a hit this year, as water restrictions to combat the drought become increasingly severe.

After three years of minimal rainfall, the city is now in a state of emergency, with locals and visitors limited to 50 liters (around 13 gallons) a day. To put that in perspective, the average American uses 380 liters daily.

That's likely a huge concern to the many travelers who have set their sights on Cape Town in the first half of 2018 and, consequently, the local people whose livelihoods depend on tourism.

The city faces a delicate balancing act in managing finite water resources while trying not to discourage the visitors it depends upon.

So should travelers change their plans? The official line is an emphatic "no."

"Cape Town is open for business in spite of the current drought," says South Africa Tourism.

"Tourists are welcome and will still be able to visit the region and access primary tourism attractions such as Table Mountain, Cape Point and Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens."

Here are some of the key questions visitors to Cape Town should consider:

What's happening right now?

Despite recent rainfall, the city is still under strict limitations on water usage.

Any residents found exceeding daily usage amounts will receive a fine, a possible jail sentence and a healthy dose of public shaming, thanks to a color-coded map that charts each street's excessive users.

And while avoiding handcuffs and irate neighbors is in everyone's interest, a 50-liter limit makes life a little tricky -- think one-minute cold showers, a daily flush of the toilet, paper plates to save on washing up, stained clothes and brown gardens.

More than anything, it is the specter of "Day Zero" that haunts people's dreams and dinner party conversations.

What is Day Zero?

Day Zero -- the moment when all municipal water is turned off -- was originally set for April.

This was changed to May 11 before being pushed back again to June 4 thanks to drastic water cuts in the agricultural sector. By then it's hoped the winter rains should have begun.

As a result, Cape Town might avoid this undoubtedly devastating fate, one that water expert Anthony Turton predicts would turn the city "medieval" within weeks.

However, traveling to Cape Town right now feels far from a voyage to the Dark Ages -- although it's far less luxurious than usual, as infinity pools have been replaced with bracing sea swims and cacti are growing over all the rose bushes.

Will I still enjoy a vacation in Cape Town?

Cape Town is one of the most beautiful cities on earth and water restrictions won't change that.

The hidden coves and generous beaches are as lovely as ever, and the mountain walks are browner but still exhilarating.

Tourists are less affected by the drought than residents, as hotels and B&Bs have a dispensation to use more water -- although if you're staying in a villa or apartment, the owner will be fined for any excess water usage.

There are changes to everyday life, but they are mostly manageable. Restaurants and bars are still open, but don't be surprised if you are refused tap water or get your drinks served in a takeaway cup.

Most pools that haven't been converted to sea water are closed, although hotels with access to ground water should be OK.

In public bathrooms, toilets are generally left unflushed and there is a hand sanitizer by every sink.

What about after Day Zero?

Any non-essential travel will have to be canceled if Day Zero is confirmed, as the city will be in a state of temporary devastation.

Locals will be collecting water from 200 "pods," all of which will be guarded by the army, as queues are predicted to last into the night.

Most restaurants, hotels and schools will have to close and experts have warned of the risk of disease outbreaks and public disorder.

Should I cancel my trip?

As Cape Town hasn't been classified as a disaster zone by governments such as the United States or United Kingdom, hotels and airlines are unlikely to give refunds -- although tour operators may offer the chance to switch to a different destination.

"I wouldn't be too hasty in changing your plans just yet, as measures have finally been put in place to avoid the taps being turned off completely," says James Chisnall, the Cape Town-based director of Untravelled Paths.

"But I would keep a keen eye on developments and consider what your alternatives would be should the water situation deteriorate further."

The moral question of whether visitors should be there is a harder one, as Cape Town desperately needs tourist dollars, but an influx of visitors could speed up the arrival of Day Zero.

"On balance, I think tourists should keep coming so long as they are water-conscious," says Taryn Walker, an advertising director.

"Ultimately the damage that a drop in tourism -- one of the greatest economic drivers in our city -- would do is even worse than the current water crisis."

Is there anywhere I can go nearby without water restrictions?

Yes. The Garden Route is looking particularly lush after a few weeks of rain, and is easily accessible from the city.

"Our suggestion is to go to areas that aren't affected by the water restrictions," says Nina Elvin-Jensen, the owner of villa rental agency Cape Concierge.

"What many people don't realize is that a quick drive from Cape Town there are beautiful places where you can use as much water as you want."

Some of the loveliest options include Hermanus, Wilderness, Plettenberg Bay and Nature's Valley -- all pretty beach towns filled with emerald-green gardens, lagoons and flagrantly full pools.

What if I'm traveling with children?

Kids love swimming, and if you're staying anywhere without a borehole then the pool will be an unappealing shade of green.

But all is not lost -- beaches like Beta and Bakoven on the Atlantic Seaboard have small rock pools that are ideal for children.

Otherwise the Sea Point Pavilion Swimming Pool is now filled with ocean water, while Dalebrook Tidal Pool in Kalk Bay is wonderful -- waves crash over the edge and rocks are covered in orange starfish.

If children are too young to stick to the official guidelines on one-minute showers, then the advice is to run a low bath for the whole family to use.

"Bathing the kids is pretty easy really, as they share a 30-liter bath which my wife and I then use afterwards," says Steven Whiteman, a local father of two toddlers.

"I go last and, as a result, I often find exciting flotsam in my beard."

Sea Point Pavillion Swimming Pool, 0I Beach Roadd, Sea Point; +27 21 434 3341

Is the wine region affected?

Yes, but many wine farms have boreholes, which means hotels in this part of the world often have usable swimming pools.

Wine yields will be down at the end of this year, but all tasting rooms are open -- so visitors can do their bit by swapping a glass of water for some cold chardonnay.

Are there any health implications?

Not yet, although water expert Anthony Turton warns of outbreaks of cholera or other diseases if Day Zero becomes a reality.

There have been reports that tap water is causing stomach upsets as the dams are now so low, so it's advisable to stick to mineral water.

What can I do to help?

Go to Cape Town, but be as water-conscious as possible. Flush the toilet once a day, turn taps off when you brush your teeth, keep showers to under a minute and change sheets and towels as rarely as possible.

Or make a donation to Gift of the Givers, which is distributing bottled water to those in need and digging boreholes near schools and hospitals.

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