Dray Dreaming

Visiting Places in Peril: My Cape Town Dilemma

Cape Town

“Should I stay or should I go now?
If I go there will be trouble
And if I stay it will be double
So come on and let me know”
The Clash

One of the destinations I was most looking forward to on this sabbatical was Cape Town. In fact, when I first sat down to create a list of possible destinations, Cape Town was at the top and, based on my initial plan, I’m scheduled to spend over a month touring the city and the neighboring Winelands in March and early April. However, towards the end of 2017, I began to read stories about the multi-year drought in the area which has resulted in an urgent need for water. The city initially announced that it would run out of water and turn off the taps on April 22nd.

Though I’m scheduled to leave before “Day Zero”, this situation is obviously not ideal and presented me with a decision I’ve never faced before: Should I visit a place that is in the midst of such a serious crisis?

The Case for Going

1.       They need the tourist revenue as fixing this problem costs money
Up to this point, the government and the major tourism agencies are encouraging people to come to Cape Town despite the crisis. While they are urging visitors to come, they are also stressing the importance of conserving water upon arrival. It’s a double-edged sword and they do most certainly need money to pay for some of the expensive solutions to the problem such as the construction of desalination plants but if I’m staying for 30 days and using 50 liters a day, that’s water that they desperately need.

2.       I’m a responsible traveler and will stick to my daily allotment
Although it will be difficult to stick to it, I couldn’t in good conscience be wasteful. In fact, it would be an interesting experience to be in a place with such dramatic restrictions on water usage (and great content for the blog!). My guess is that it would likely reveal the extent of my wastefulness in day-to-day life.

3.       The assumption that “they’ll figure it out”
Cape Town is a big city (in fact their rapid population growth is part of the problem) and big cities like this typically do solve problems like this. However, in reading about this crisis, this assumption is shared by many locals who have not reduced their water consumption. In reading in the travel blogosphere, most people seem to be saying something like “it’s not a big deal… we barely even notice the problem at all”. I certainly want to believe these people but I worry that this sentiment is flawed.
A recent statement from the Mayor’s office stated that 60% of Capetonians are not saving water (i.e., using over 87 liters per day) and has introduced heavy fines for overuse
. In fact, this overuse recently caused the Mayor to move Day Zero from April 22nd to April 12th. The Mayor stated: “It is quite unbelievable that a majority of people do not seem to care and are sending all of us headlong towards Day Zero”. In fact, the Mayor even stated that the seven augmentation projects currently underway were never enough to prevent Day Zero. So while I certainly hope they’ll “figure it out,” I have my doubts.

4.       I’ve wanted to visit Cape Town for a long time
I had actually cancelled a trip to Cape Town several years ago at the last minute due to a snowstorm in the Northeast. Maybe I’m just not meant to visit…? In all seriousness, I’ve got loads of time to visit in the future so while I’d love to go, my own selfish reasons don’t move the needle much.

The Case for Canceling

1.       Even if I stick to my daily allotment, I’m still using water for my own leisure purposes when others, particularly the impoverished, need it for basic survival.
The New York Times described Cape Town “as one of the world’s most unequal societies, where access to water reflects Cape Town’s deep divisions”. My wastefulness likely doesn’t affect those living in the city as much as it may affect those outside the city where poverty levels are severe. Imagining some desperately thirsty child without access to water while I’m taking my 90-second shower is tough to fathom.

2.       Potential for civil unrest as Day Zero approaches in a city that’s already not necessarily known for safety.
The New York Times also discussed the possibility that the city will likely have to bring in the army once Day Zero comes close in an effort to maintain order and also to facilitate the daily water rations once Day Zero arrives. If Day Zero continues to be moved up, it’s absolutely not beyond the realm of possibility to imagine some dangerous situations emerging.

3.       Even though I’m scheduled to stay for a month, my itinerary is actually fairly easy to cancel and will only cost me $200 to cancel all of my hotels and both flights.
I’m admittedly a little lucky here as my initial plan was to stay in an Airbnb for a month. Once you book a place for over 28 days, Airbnb reservations become non-refundable for the first month. However, with an abundance of Marriott and Hilton points, I found some terrific hotel values in and around Cape Town. My current itinerary involved using over 400,000 points for 32 nights. Fortunately, these are easy to cancel.
The flights were booked with miles which makes them reasonably easy to cancel as well. I had booked a flight on Qatar Airways using American Airlines miles. Again, I got a little lucky here as I was alerted to a fairly significant schedule change last month. I called and told them that this change was unacceptable to me and they refunded the miles and the fees with no charge. My flight from Cape Town to Vienna was also booked with miles and cost me $200 to cancel and get my miles refunded.

4.       I’m happy to stick to my daily allotment under these circumstances but skipping showers and not flushing toilets is a less-than-ideal tourist experience.
In addition to moving up Day Zero, the Mayor also implemented tighter restrictions on water usage starting February 1. On that date, individuals will only be allowed to use 50 liters (down from 87), or a little over 13 gallons, of water per day. To put this in perspective, 50 liters of water is enough for a 3-minute shower, 2 toilet flushes, and 2 liters of drinking water. Not every vacation has to be so luxurious and, again, the experience might well be especially interesting given the circumstances. However, I’m quite sure I take for granted the ability to flush the toilet when I use the bathroom. And I’m sure 90 seconds goes awfully quick when you’re trying to shower. In the end, while a little adventure is fun while traveling, I imagine this routine wearing me out over time.

My Decision

Even though I struggled with this one for a few days, the decision was a fairly easy one as you can probably tell by now. I’ve decided to postpone this portion of my trip. I recently wrote about how picking travel destinations comes down to a decision based on probability and risk. In this case, the risk of a difficult experience was too hard to ignore, especially given the impact of my visit on local residents and the ease in which I was able to cancel this trip.

Now the fun part, where should I go instead???

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