Bill Wood, a retired Episcopal priest from Maine, lived in Africa in the late 1960s, and fell for Cape Town during a visit two years ago. But when Wood and his wife, Sue, stepped off their vacation cruise for a return to the glamorous city in February, they weren't sure what to expect.
Their previous stop, in Walvis Bay, Namibia, surrounded by the parched and dusty Namib desert, had gone off without a hitch. But they'd been warned that typically far less arid Cape Town was actually experiencing such a severe water shortage that the city might be forced to shut off drinking water taps in coming months.
"We went from the ship to the hotel, and it was clear that there was a water crisis," Bill Wood says. "Everyone was talking about it. But I really couldn't grasp what the hotel wanted us to do. It was a sort-of vague 'we're having this problem.' But there was no real punch to it for us as customers."
Wood, a social activist and South African history buff, took shorter showers. The Woods didn't flush the toilet after every use, kept water off when brushing teeth, and were happy not to have their towels washed daily. In short, they simply "tried to be good tourists," Wood says.
For the moment, say economic, academic and city leaders in South Africa, that's nearly all that is being asked of Cape Town tourists.
In fact, few experiences for visitors, outside of some whitewater river trips, are being limited by the city's water woes. Many swimming pools have been drained and converted to saltwater pools and some spa and steam baths have been removed. Guests are encouraged to wash with hand sanitizers and take one minute showers rather than baths.
But for now, the city is still "able to welcome all visitors, and the water shortage will have a minimal impact on the quality of their stay," says Enver Duminy, chief executive of Cape Town Tourism, in a statement to National Geographic. "Cape Town remains a world-class destination that provides fantastic experiences and travel adventures."
And while that may be what one expects to hear from the head of a tourism organization, those sentiments were echoed across South Africa—including from officials who have been among the most concerned about the city's water challenges.
Urging "tourists to stay away is not helpful to us by any means," says Kevin Winter, lead researcher for an urban water group at the University of Cape Town. "Better that you come here to the city and contribute to the economy of the city so that it can help enable us to deal with the challenges of water infrastructure, of managing our water. We need that income very desperately."
Cape Town, with its beaches, wineries, lush gardens, and towering Table Mountain, is facing its third year of drought. So severely has its drinking water reservoirs been depleted—they are at 24% of capacity—that city leaders have prepared for "Day Zero," the moment when water drops so low the city might have to shut off taps to homes and businesses. At that time, the city's four million residents would need to live on no more than 25 liters of water a day gathered from just 200 public taps protected by armed guards.
Many cities and rural areas around have faced water scarcity, but this would mark one of the first times a major world city would completely shut off drinking water to nearby homes. Already, in recent months, the city limited water use to 50 liters per person a day—less than one-sixth what the average American uses—and has outlawed use of taps to water lawns and gardens, wash cars or fill pools. It even increased patrols around natural springs, where fights had broken out.
Still, water consciousness around the city is high and visitors are encouraged, says Claire Pengelly, a water manager for GreenCape, a nonprofit that encourages sustainability in the Western Cape. Unemployment in Cape Town is high. More than 200,000 people are directly employed by tourism. Visitors drive roughly one-third of the economy, but add only one percent to the population.
"It is definitely OK for visitors to travel to Cape Town as long as they are aware of the drought and prepared to 'save like a local,'" Pengelly says.
And many areas in and around Cape Town have been spared the worst. Most of the severe water restrictions are found only on the Atlantic Ocean side of the region, with many places, including coastal towns like Hermanus and most of the Garden Route, still facing only slight water restrictions. (See here for a frequently updated list of water restrictions and FAQs.)
"Tourists coming here respect the situation and have been, on the whole, I think extremely good," Winter says.
In addition, during the last six weeks, a concerted push by city officials, along with the release of private water by nearby farmers, seems to have pushed back the likelihood of a shutoff. Once expected as soon as April, "Day Zero," is now not predicted to arrive before early July, which is well past when the city normally gets the heavy rains of the Southern Hemisphere winter.
"Certainly it's brought some relief in the city and there is a greater sense of calmness," Winter says. "I think there's a sense that we will make it to the winter rainfall."
But then a bigger question looms: How much rain may come? In the last several years, rain during June, July, and August has been far below average, which has helped propel Cape Town's multi-year drown. If that were to happen again in 2018, Winter says, then the city's woes could worsen even more come September or October and into next year.
"For the moment we're fine for mid-year, but things might look a little different for September," Winter says.