For Durban’s harbour charter community, the long-awaited move to level two of Covid-19 lockdown — which allows them back onto the water for the first time since March — may have come just in the nick of time for their battered businesses to survive.
For now, the four charter companies operating out of Wilson’s Wharf have to make do with a trickle of customers who have made their way to the city’s small craft marina since conditions eased on August 17.
But they are confident that if their landlord, Ithala Development Corporation, continues to give them breathing space on their rent and the number of people coming back to the waterfront area continues to grow, they will make it to the December tourist season.
Isle of Capri Cruises owners Bennie Janse van Rensburg and his wife, Amanda, run a 10-seater whale-watching boat, two 10-seater harbour craft and a 47-seater party boat. The couple bought the company, which has been running for more than 50 years, in 2004 when they left teaching, and now employ 14 people. They started the whale-watching aspect of their operation three years ago and had been looking forward to a bumper 2020 season.
Unlike many of the businesses at the marina, they are still afloat, despite five months with no income. The Catalina Theatre and two sit-down restaurants haven’t survived, while 16 of the 20 stalls at the marina flea market are now empty, along with three clothing designers who had operated there for several years.
“In all my life I have never experienced something like this,” Janse van Rensburg said. “Things were bad in 2008, but it was nothing compared to this. Nothing.”
Janse van Rensburg said business had “plummeted”’ ahead of the March 26 lockdown due to fear of the virus, while the marina had remained closed until level three.
While his staff received payments from the Temporary Employer/Employee Relief Scheme (Ters), the amounts had dwindled, as had his savings, which had to be used to pay creditors. He and other tenants were given a three-month reprieve on their rent, and are now negotiating for further relief.
“I am optimistic, but if the landlord tells us to pay up now, I will have to close up for good,” he said.
Despite the lifting of some restrictions, Wilson’s Wharf remained empty until last weekend, when the first domestic tourists started arriving for boat rides.
While the regulations for charter craft are yet to be gazetted, the Janse van Rensburgs have been operating at 70 % capacity — when they have enough passengers for either 30-minute or 60-minute rides — until the regulations are clarified.
Ahmed Mia, an operator of Pescador Cruises, runs three harbour cruisers and a fishing charter out of the wharf. Mia is happy they did not have to lay off any of their 10 staff during the lockdown, although they are working on rotation because of the lack of business.
Mia, like other operators, has had to invest in sanitiser and other protective equipment, despite months of no income.
“We have to adapt the way we work. We’re optimistic. People have been locked down for five months and they need to get out and do something, so we are sure business will pick up. Until then we just have to take it one day at a time,’’ Mia said.
Carin Jansen, the Pescador receptionist, is relieved to be back at work.
“At one point I was scared that things were never going to open up again. Half the family was sitting at home, waiting. We got really worried when things were being opened up and then closed, but at least we can work again now.”