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The South African city is in a water crisis, but it still needs your tourism. Here’s what to know before you go.

When I arrived at Cape Town International Airport, I was overcome by thirst. It was the same for my friend who arrived separately. The airport was fully kitted out with water conservation signs and messaging, and the reminder of a water shortage made us both reach for our water bottles instantly. That subconscious reaction didn’t help us conserve the supply we had arrived with. But there’s no lack of bottled drinking water in the seaside city that’s made global waves with headlines proclaiming that it’s on its way to Day Zero—the point at which taps would run dry and locals would be required to line up for a minute daily allotment of 6.5 gallons of H2O.

Despite the doom-and-gloom predictions, I traveled to Cape Town in early February to visit my sister, who is living there. In the two weeks I was there, Day Zero, which was supposed to be in mid-April, was pushed back by a month. It’s now at a “probably never” point for the year—the New York Times reports that although the city is still in a dire situation, the residents’ conservation efforts have helped push back the day the taps are turned off. The Level 5 restrictions, which reduced residents to about 13 gallons a day—on the honor system—have certainly slowed the depletion of water. Despite the progress in conservation, however, the severity of the drought has forced South Africa to declare a state of emergency.

Somewhat contrary to the messaging at the airport, on signs around the city, and on a flyer I received walking around the suburb of Sea Point, the one message I heard loud and clear from everyone I spoke with was that they were glad I followed through with my trip. Locals don’t place blame on the tourists for this problem—far from it. It’s the government they blame for not doing more years ago to prevent this (there was also a severe drought in 2015, and in 2016 the city avoided Day Zero by reducing consumption by 50 percent in three months), and for the municipal rainwater catchment system being ineffective.

A view of Cape Town's Table Mountain
Still, while I was at Leeu Estates in Franschhoek—a winery and hotel 50 miles outside of Cape Town that’s not on the municipal water grid but still reducing water usage and focusing on low-water plants such as jade—one staff member working on the gardens was skeptical. “Maybe they could have done more research on converting saltwater to drinking water,” the employee said, “but they couldn’t have predicted we wouldn’t get this rain.”

Older local farmers say this year, though a bit more dramatic, falls into the time-tested pattern of very dry then very wet years. Properties in the Winelands like La Residence and Babylonstoren have independent water sources but are still taking action. At Mont Rochelle, the grass may not be as green as usual when you visit, and towel and bed linen changes are only upon request.

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With a group trip planned from late April to early May, just days before the originally predicted Day Zero, The Commonwealth Club travelers expressed concern that their trip would have a negative impact on Capetonians. “After researching the issue,” says travel director Kristina Nemeth, “reading loads of news stories, communication with our tour operator, the hotel, and with people I know personally living in Cape Town, the overwhelming response was to please still come. The income generated by tourism is 9 percent of the country’s GDP and they need that money, those jobs.” Furthermore, she says, “the city’s water management, agriculture, and industry usage” are bigger issues than individual usage. 

In some public restrooms, like those at Surf Emporium in Muizenberg, flow-reducing mist faucets have been installed (and their showers turned off, by choice). At one stadium, bathroom goers left toilets unflushed, in accordance with water-saving techniques. Waterless hand sanitizer sat aside nearly every bathroom sink I visited. “Drink wine, save water” signs were cheeky reminders of the crisis and all the delicious places to visit in the Winelands. While going up the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway—a must-do for any visitor for its panoramic views—an announcer did his part, suggesting, “Instead of drinking water, have a glass of beer.”

At One&Only Cape Town and The Silo, bathtub plugs had been removed from rooms yet are available by request. The Vineyard Hotel and Spa keeps cute rubber duckies with water conservation tips in the guestroom bathrooms. At these five-star properties, plus others including Ellerman House, residents are being asked to reduce showers to two minutes (with eco-shower heads and devices installed on all taps, and timers provided), linens are changed every three to four days, water from melted ice is repurposed to water plants, and pools are topped up with treated and filtered recycled water. Many have implemented gray-water systems and installed boreholes for an alternative supply in years to come. One restaurant, The Botanical Bar, began using frozen watermelon rind to make slushie-like cocktails that require no water. 

Architecture peeping in Cape Town—no water required

These valiant efforts and others are part of the reason tour operator GeoEx is still sending guests on planned trips this month. “Tourism dollars will be needed now more than ever to support water conservation initiatives and the local communities, especially the townships,” says Starla Estrada, who handles programming in South Africa and, along with her GeoEx team, called each client individually to discuss the issue in detail.

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“Tourism dollars will be needed now more than ever to support water conservation initiatives and the local communities, especially the townships.”

While it’s undoubtedly a problem that the situation got this dire—with the city needing to reduce water use to 500 million liters per day, from the current level of 624—there is some good news for the future. The crisis that Cape Town has experienced on a global stage will help encourage future measures to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.

My biggest takeaway from a trip filled with natural beauty, memorable food, and incredible wine was that we waste too much in our daily lives. I was inspired to be more conscientious all the time, not just in a drought. I’m implementing simple water-saving methods at home and everywhere I go now because the message resonated with me and it still does.

Plus, says Nemeth, “This isn’t just limited to Cape Town—other cities have possible Day Zeros in their future.” Although she’s worked in the travel industry for 20 years, she says this is a new issue. And while disaster seems to have been averted for now, “this is really a wake-up call,” she says. “It seems that to practice conservation—not just at a crisis point, but always—will be the new normal.”

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