The past decade has been a turbulent but also exciting time for the South African RV market. From weaking exchange rates driving up the price of vehicles due to import costs of parts and accessories, to the near-collapse of the oldest and biggest caravan manufacturer in the country on the one side, to an explosion of innovation and new manufacturers on the other. While new caravan sales had dropped by just over 40% from 2009 to 2019, things were actually starting to look up.
Words Francois Huysamen
Digital Editor at CaravanSA
Pictures supplied by Caravan & Outdoor Life
Tourism data released by Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) – which analyses accommodation revenue and occupancy rates – showed that in March 2019 the income for caravan parks and camping sites in the tourist accommodation industry had grown 27% year-on-year. April 2019 income in this sector was on par with the previous year, but May showed an unbelievable 44,6% increase.The start of 2020 also saw a record attendance for South Africa’s largest caravan, camping and motorhome exhibition show: The Caravan Show at Gallagher Hall in Johannesburg. Totalling over 15000 m² floor space, with over 900 exhibitors (manufacturer attendance constituted more than 90% of the South African market), organisers recorded over 32665 show visitors – an impressive growth of 7500 attendees from the previous.
Covid hits camping industry
Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit, and on 15 March 2020, the President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, declared a national state of disaster. Immediate travel restrictions were put in place, and on 27 March 2020 a national lockdown came into effect. Within the first month of the lockdown, three million South Africans had lost their jobs, and in December 2020 it was reported by the Department of Small Business Development that 42.7% of small businesses in South Africa had closed due to the economic impact of the lockdown. The outdoor recreational market was basically forced to a standstill. With non-essential businesses closed and economic uncertainty setting in, manufacturers in the RV market saw local sales plummet. Concurrently, with leisure travel prohibited by the government, camping and caravanning resorts had no option but to temporarily close, hoping to be able to survive until restrictions were lifted. After a successful holiday season and start to the year where caravan parks and campings sites saw good year-on-year growth in income from accomodation (15% in December 2019, 22% in January 2020, 25% in February), Stats SA report that both April and May 2020 saw a grim 100% negative year-on-year growth in income from accommodation. The latest figures for 2021 show a 36,6% year-on-year decline in January and 50,6% year-on-year decline.
Optimism for RV sales
While the past couple of years have been difficult for the RV market in South Africa, there does appear to be light at the end of the tunnel. Many manufacturers and dealership are seeing an increase in sales over the past six months. Ina Dreyer, from Jurgens Campworld, says: “We are currently experiencing a spike in sales – due to Covid restrictions and people choosing to stay in their ‘own’ accommodation rather than shared accommodation such as hotels and guesthouses.”
This trend is echoed by Allan Keyzer from Aloe Caravans: “There is an improvement in the motorhome market as local citizens want to be totally self-sufficient while traveling on holiday, reducing the risk of virus infection.”
Safety has not been the only driving force behind the recent recovery of the RV market. With international travel mostly off the table, more South Africans are opting for local holidays. This has been especially favourable to the rental and second-hand vehicle market.
Dennis Bouwers, Managing Director of Bobo Campers – one of South Africa’s biggest brands for motorhome hire – says they have seen an increase in used motorhome demand, including from first-time campers.
“With South Africans now opting for a local holiday, many have tried and loved a motorhome trip,” he says. “Many are first-timers, so more ‘new blood’ is introduced to the camping lifestyle. With rental companies experiencing a big dip in inbound tourism, rental fleet sizes had to be either kept on hold or reduced. This has resulted in more late-model, ex-fleet units coming onto the market, giving the customer more choice than ever.”
This demand for recreation vehicles for local travel has not only been beneficial to rental companies, but also to some manufacturers.
Motorhome-World, the biggest manufacturer of motorhomes in South Africa and the sole supplier of new vehicles to Bobo Camper’s rental fleet, has seen a recent increase in their export business.
Dennis Bouwers, Managing Director of Motorhome-World, says: “The main reason for the higher demand in exports is due to the Coronavirus crisis. The demand for new motorhomes in Australia was created by the crises for Australian to travel their own country.”
The RV market
The South African RV vehicle market can be divided into four segments: caravans, motorhomes/campervans, trailers and campers (slide on/off units). Unfortunately, the national administration traffic information system (NaTIS) only makes offical statistics available for new and used caravan sales. NaTIS includes motorhomes and campers in the category “LDV’s, panel vans, other light load veh’s GVM <= 3500 kg”, while camping trailers are included in the category “light load trailers GVM <= 3500 kg”. The latest figures available from NaTIS shows that in 2020 a total of 1109 new caravan vehicle registrations were recorded. While this number might appear low compared to European figures, it should be noted that despite the difficulties faced around the country and the world, 2020 was the first year in over a decade that showed year-on-year growth (although small) in new caravan sales. Offical NaTIS records currently available only date back to 2007, but still show a clear downward trend in the new caravan sales market: From 2306 units in 2007 to just 1841 only two years later, and coming to a low in 2019 with 1077 sales. According to eNaTIS, the live vehicle population (Carvans) as per the National Traffic Information System stood at 98051 by the end of 2020 (down 6,84% from 105 462 in 2010). While the new caravan sales market has plummeted by more than 50% in just over a decade, the used caravan market in South Africa has been more stable. Used caravan registration figures from 2009 stood at 12 866, and dropped only 14,3% in the next decade to 11015. In 2020 a total of 10 464 used caravan registrations took place.
Ina Dreyer says: “The secondhand market is signicicantly greater than the new market due to personal finances, especially with the effect Covid had on spendable income.”
Johan Nel, Director at Tuinroete Camping and Caravans – a family-run dealership that is part of a national dealer network – confirms: “Sales are booming in the secondhand market. We sell about three used vehicles for every one new caravan.”
While South Africa has over 50 manufacuters of caravans – some producing hundreds of units per year, others only a handful on demand – the motorhome industry is much smaller.
“The caravan industry is already part of South Africa’s history, but motorhome holidays are not yet as popular as it is in Europe,” says Tim Bouwers. “Currently, the manufacturing plant is exporting more units than selling locally.”
Dennis Bouwers adds: “Motorhome-World has seen a large upswing in demand from Australia for its products. So far in 2021, the orders received have been double of that in 2019.”
Motorhome-World currently has three dealers in South Africa and two export distributors (all independently owned).
“In South Africa, we have seen an increase in the 4×4 customized offroad motorhome demand from 2013 till 2020. However, today in Covid times, the market has a very low demand in the R2m to R3m purchase price market. In the R1mil to R2mil market (standard production semi-integral motorhomes) the demand since 2017 has been stable (not counting 2020). We have also seen an increase in the demand for panelvan motorhomes since the start of 2021. Although still quite small we do foresee growth in this market.”
Tim Swanepoel from the Motorhome Club of South Africa, says: “The motorhome industry in South Africa appears to be growing… our club is growing! There are currently just over 3000 privately-owned motorhomes registered in South Africa, and of those about 770 are member of our club.”
To understand the current situation of dealerships in South Africa, we have to turn the clock back to 1950 when Mr Geert ‘Oubaas’ Jurgens, a coachworks and truck body builder from Holland, arrived with his wife and two sons in Johannesburg, South Africa. After 18 months working in the truck body building trade, learning the South African way, they opened their own factory and produced the first Jurgens caravan in South Africa – complete with interior cushions and curtains hand-sewn by Mrs Jurgens. Within years the Jurgens business grew from three to 48 employees as the public of South Africa took to this new form of recreation. This growing market drew the attention of other manufacturers, and the late 1950s saw the arrival of Caravans International. In 1964, Caravans International acquired Gypsey, and Jurgens now had two major competitors. The South African RV market kept growing – in 1967 Jurgens celebrated the manufacture of their 10000th caravan, and by 1972 they were manufacturing 3000 caravans per year.
But turbulent times lay ahead. Political tensions in South Africa were rising, sanctions were being threatened and a fuel crisis loomed. In 1980 Rieks Jurgens resigned and sold his shares to his brother Dirk, bringing a 28-year run by the father and two sons to an end. The company kept losing market share, and the plan in the mid 1980s to purchase Slipstream did not have the desired effect. Market share for the once mighty Jurgens Caravans shrunk to single digits, and by 1989 a skeleton staff manufactured only about 200 Jurgens caravans. It was then that Jurgens Bodies, Caravans and Trailers was sold to Michael Delport’s Decagon Group. The first urgent task was to rebuild the dealer network, many of whom had defected to CI Caravans. By the end of 1991 Jurgens had grown from five to 21 dealers, and were winning back market share. By 1993 the cracks were beginning to show in a beleaguered CI Caravans, and the launch of the next generation of Jurgens caravans in 1994 “knocked the stuffing out of CI”, as Michael Delport put it. The new range helped Jurgens obtain 40% market share, and later in 1994 he bought out the competition and Jurgens Ci was born. For the next 13 years, Jurgens Ci kept growing and innovating, until in 2007 Michael Delport announced that he was selling Jurgens Ci to the Imperial Group. At this time Jurgens Ci basically had a monopoly on the South African caravan market, producing over 1700 new caravans a year, with a dealer network of more than 30 Campworld stores in South Africa and Namibia, and were exporting units to Australia (where they also have a production facility), the Netherlands and New Zealand. While the acquisition by Imperial made sense, as it complemented the group’s already major involvement in the automotive industry, the years that followed were a time of stagnation, and it was not until 2017 that Jurgens Ci introduced a new range of caravans into the South African market. However, no sooner had they launched the long and overdue range of new models when the holding company (Imperial) sold Jurgens CI to South African investor, headed up by Paul Kyriacou, an entrepreneur who has interests in retail supermarkets, a caravan dealership, other manufacturing business, and property. The new owners had a tough task, walking straight into a factory plagued with labour dispute and unrest, a massive exodus of senior staff, and the new range of caravans even being refused by some dealers on the grounds that they were too heavy and that the finish was poor. While Jurgens Ci spent the next couple of years trying to get back on track, the dealer network suffered. Production at the Jurgens factories was slow or non-existing, and dealerships struggled to get sufficient parts, accessories and camping gear. This created a gap in the market and allowed for the forming of a new company looking to take the lead in the South African caravan and camping industry: LeisureWorld.By August 2018, LeisureWorld was founded by 17 caravan dealerships across the country (many who were Jurgens Campworld stores) working together – with most of the involved dealerships also being shareholders.
At the time, managing directors Jan Serfontein and Arnold Prosch told the media “[LeisureWorld] wants to ensure caravan owners that their beloved leisure vehicles are still in good hands, that caravans can still be serviced, and repairs and new parts are available – including Jurgens Ci caravans. LeisureWorld – that today has 16 dealerships in South Africa and two in Namibia – has secured import and export permits for caravan parts and camping equipment, and have built a relationship between all suppliers of parts and accessories, which means that everything that was supplied in the past (from local and international sources) is still available.”
Meanwhile, Jurgens have also been reshaping their dealer network, lifting restrictions that prohibited their Campworld stores from stocking RV brands other than Jurgens, allowing dealers to sell a bigger variety of products. By 2021, the Jurgens factory no longer owns any dealerships (Jurgens’ new owner, Paul Kyriacou, still owns Comet Caravans and Sensation Caravans), and all Campworld stores are independently owned and able to sell any products and brand they wish. This has actually been beneficial to dealerships, since over the past three years South Africa has seen an explosion in new RV manufacturers.
Diversity and innovation
As Jurgens’ decades-long monopoly on the RV market faded, the South African market became alive with innovation as new manufacturers entered the industry, and existing ones expanded their offerring. The third quarter of 2017 saw, among others, the launch of the new Skipper Oyster, the Sensation V, Sherpa FibreTrail, Imagine XL, the Abba Safari Campervan, and Motorhome-World’s new iD2. The year 2018 kicked off with new manufacturer Destination Caravans unveiling their first unit: A 9-metre long luxury caravan called Dream. In February, a dozen more new caravans launched at one of South Africa’s premier industry events, the Beeld Holiday Show. The year saw even more new manufacturers shaking up the market: First OKTO Caravans launched their Villa, and then Profibre Products released the Stealth Evo XR6.
RV enthusiasts suddenly had a bigger choice than ever before in South Africa… and there was more to come. Over a dozen new products were revealed at the Caravan Camp & Destination Show (formely the Beeld Holiday Show): Conqueror revealed four new off-road caravans in their Urban Escape Vehicle (UEV) range, Echo 4×4 launched the Kunene, and a new entrant to the market, Nayela, made waves with their first unit, the Okapi. On the road caravan side, there were “big” developments, with nine road caravans measuring over 7 metres: The Gray from Custom Campers, the Checkmate Queen and Knight, Destination with their Wonder, Dream and Journey, the imported Swift Atlantic and Coastline, and the Azzero from Hoefer Group. Motorhome-World cemented their place as South Africa’s premier motorhome manufacturer with the unveiling of the Discoverer 4; the quality, design and detail which is on par with top products available in Europe.
Building for the end-user
The new recreational vehicles entering the market was not only good news for South African campers, who now had more choice of brand and style than ever before, but was also welcomed by local parts manufacturers.
Francois Coetzee from Roadque – a South African trailer, caravan, outdoor and automotive component company – now delivers for various new RV brands, including BorderX, UniPod, Destination, and Checkmate.
Francois says: “Recent years have seen a lot of new manufacturers entering the market. And what is specifically interesting is to look at the types of recreational vehicles that have emerged. We are seeing a big move towards gravel/off-road vehicles. This is not just due to a lifestyle trend among campers… a big contributing factor is simply that South African roads are in bad condition. Having a caravan that can handle off-road conditions, and also safely navigate damaged roads and potholes, is important to campers.”
These trends are reflected in the motorhome market, says Tim Bouwers: “We are seeing a focus on more off-road capable motorhomes. This gives you more choice for destinations. Other elements that clients prefer are island beds, large fridges and outside kitchens.”
At Jurgens, these preferences are being incorporated in their latest products. Ina Dreyer says: “Our new Splash SX is a gravel-road caravan wist and island bed; the 60th anniversary edition of the Sprite, named the Sprite LX, now has the SP Tourer bathroom, and island bed and outside shower.”
With the RV industry that was experiencing more diversity and innovation, and appears to have finally stopped declining, the Covid-19 pandemic was a hard blow. While resorts were left without campers, manufacturers and dealerships were hit with import problems.
Allan Keyzer says: “There is very limited stock of material in the market to build caravans, and the cost of freight has substantially increased the cost, which resulted in the suppliers increasing the price and thus influencing the price of the end product.”
But as the saying goes: every cloud has a silver lining. This has created opportunity in the local market for the supply of materials that are not hard to come by.
Ina Dreyer says: “Steel is still a problem due to import difficulties, but with the overall slower market conditions during the pandemic, at least we never got to a standstill in the factory. But if you look at, for instance, something like the locks we install on our caravans. These we imported, but we are now looking at finding a local supplier.”
Asked what else is hampering the current RV industry in South Africa, most roleplayers also mention the issue with towing licences. In South Africa, a person with a normal driver’s licence (called a B licence) is only allowed to drive a vehicle with a GVM of less than 3500 kg, and tow a trailer or caravan with a GVM below 750 kg. In order to tow a bigger caravan or trailer, you need an EB licence, which allows you to tow up to 3500 kg.
Allan Keyzer comments: “Close to 70 percent of the population has a B license, which allows them to tow a maximum of 750 kg. This eliminates the vast majority from towing a bush trailer or caravan. It is a major reason why the industry is in the state it is. I think the holder of a B license should be able to upgrade when they renew their first licence.”
Currently, the process for getting an EB licence (also known as a towing licence), is for a driver to retake their learner’s licence, and then also pass another practical driving test… both of which come at a cost.
Ina Dreyer adds: “It’s definitely hampering the industry. A new generation does not have EB licences and they don’t want to go through the whole process of writing their learner’s licence, then going for the actual test, ect. The corruption within testing stations demoralize prospective towers, making it a costly exercise if they are failed time and again.”
This is also not the only limitations of the driving licences in South Africa, as Tim Bouwers explains: “Currently, your vehicle’s Tare decides on the towing unit’s maximum GVM. Many vehicle manufacturers offer larger towing capability. It would be fair to rather decide on towing capability according to the manufacturer, which will give the customer more choice too.”
The road ahead
While the South African RV industry has seen a slow decline over the past decade and is having a tough time with the Covid-19 pandemic, there is overall optimism from manufacturers and dealerships. Pre-pandemic sales figures on new caravans improved for the first time in years, and even though international tourism is at a standstill, with lockdown restrictions on local travel being eased there appears to be a growing interest in South Africans for the camping lifestyle.
Tim Swanepoel from the Motorhome Club of South Africa says: “We are seeing a lot of local travelling a lot more in South Africa. Even among our members there are many who used to only go to the rallies, who are now doing other trips. And apart from the holiday season and long weekend peak in camping action, we are also noticing more interest in longer journeys of about three to four weeks.”
Tim Bouwers adds: “Motorhome-World has a lot of request and orders for motorhome for permanent live onboard, mostly the 4×4 customized market. Trips have reduced from an average of 18 days to 5 days as locals choose for shorted weekend breaks to fit into their work schedules. With South Africans now opting for a local holiday, they enjoy a discounted market too, making a trip of this kind more affordable than before.”