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South African tourism needs some big thinking

Andrew McGregor
By Andrew McGregor
Managing Director, Who Owns Whom

Andrew McGregor is the Managing Director of Who Owns Whom, an independent research organisation

Posted on Tuesday, 10 December 2019 09:57

Clouds blow over Cape Town's iconic Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa, March 17, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

Travel to Africa is expected to double by 2030. If South Africa is to grab its share it needs a more joined-up marketing strategy.

Friends recently asked me to show their Norwegian cousins around Johannesburg for a day. We went to the Apartheid Museum in the morning, The Westcliff for lunch and Constitution Hill in the afternoon.

I had hired a van and a driver, and at the lunch one of the Norwegians asked our Zimbabwean driver: “If I name your president can you name mine?” “No I can’t  name your president,” the driver said, “but I can name your top four soccer teams”. To their astonishment, he proceeded to write the names down in perfect Norsk.

Another friend, who recently returned from a two-year stint in China, said that what he missed the most was the warmth and friendliness of his fellow South Africans.

This sector has the potential to be a far greater contributor to the economy and enterprise development, especially among women and youth

According to Stats SA, travel and tourism’s direct contribution to South African GDP was R130.25bn ($1.29bn) in 2017, a 4.2% increase from R124.96bn in 2016.

This sector has the potential to be a far greater contributor to the economy and enterprise development, especially among women and youth, and the Department of Tourism aims to transform the sector to exceed the requirements of the amended Tourism B-BBEE sector code.

However, the Who Owns Whom report on Hotels, Camping Sites & Other Provision of Short-Stay Accommodation states that the number of tourists from Europe – the majority of whom come from the United Kingdom, Germany, France and the Netherlands – decreased by 2.5% to 1.62 million in 2018 from 1.66 million in 2017.

  • This is attributed to the introduction of onerous travel document requirements imposed in 2014 by then home affairs minister Malusi Gigaba.

The Western Cape development agency, Wesgro, commented at the time that “the well-intentioned but poorly considered requirement for unabridged birth certificates resulted in nothing short of a crisis in the tourism industry in South Africa and the Western Cape”.

Research showed that more than 13,000 travellers were refused entry to South Africa in 2016 for failing to meet unabridged birth certificate requirements. Fortunately, the current minister, Aaron Motsoaledi, amended the regulations in December 2018 and children who are foreign nationals from countries where visas are required will no longer have to carry supporting documents.

Interestingly, tourist numbers from Central and South America increased by 8.3% to 116,516 in 2018, from 107,582 in 2017, and Argentinian tourist numbers showed the largest increase of non-African tourists, growing 30.7% to 19,439 in 2018 from 14,874 tourists in 2017.

The National Development Plan (NDP) recognises tourism as one of the main drivers of employment and economic growth, and South Africa has played a pivotal role in strengthening regional integration in the tourism sector, particularly in driving transformation in the Regional Tourism Organisation of Southern Africa.

However, if we are to secure our fair share of the World Tourism Organisation’s estimate that tourism in Africa could more than double to 134 million tourists in 2030 from 50 million in 2010, we will need to raise the bar.

  • The current structure of tourism departments for each province has come under some criticism as it duplicates costs and creates parallel – and not necessarily complementary – marketing efforts.
  • There is an argument for centralising tourism marketing under the national department. In addition, international marketing could benefit from regional cooperation, with packages including everything from Namibia’s Etosha National Park to the city of Cape Town.

Some destinations are neglected in current marketing efforts. One example is the Vredefort Dome in the Free State. This is the world’s oldest and largest impact meteor, roughly the size of Table Mountain, which hit the earth two billion years ago.

In 2005, the Vredefort Dome was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites for its geologic interest, but it cannot be declared a world heritage site until South Africa’s department of environmental affairs declares it a national heritage site. The delay to do so is unexplained.

On a recent visit to the dome, we stayed in Parys and were treated to the Flower Festival, a co-operation between the Free State and the Island of Madeira, which was and one the most beautiful parades we have seen. It is in its fourth year, yet no one I have since spoken with has ever heard of it.

If this sector is to achieve its full potential it needs some big thinking.

  • For example, perhaps we should remove the operational part of South African Airlines and offer heavily discounted international flights to tourists who book a package over a certain value, with tour operators passing a rebate back to the airline.
  • According to the hotel report mentioned above, there is a skills shortage in the industry. The mothballed Carlton hotel in Johannesburg could be converted into a tourism training facility.

Southern Africa is a unique travel destination and Southern Africans are very good hosts, but we need more skills, more customers and bold and creative ideas to exploit these natural assets.

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