Rhinos graze in the Pongola Nature Reserve in Jozini, SA. Picture: REUTERS/ROGAN WARD
Rhinos graze in the Pongola Nature Reserve in Jozini, SA. Picture: REUTERS/ROGAN WARD

The South African tourism sector in particular holds great potential in terms of job creation. However, industry heavyweights are looking to government to hold firm to its commitments to remove regulatory uncertainty in the system.

The department of home affairs has recently eased unabridged birth certificate rules to make it easier for visitors from targeted tourism markets to visit SA, as well as other amendments to the visa regime, but the regulations remain confusing according to feedback from industry professionals.

The tourism sector is facing a variety of challenges of which the visa story is just one. Rising fuel costs, water shortages in parts of the country and slow transformation rates in industry all contribute to a climate than can seem impossible to change, but the negative aspects are far outweighed by the positive potential that exists.

SA’s unemployment rate increased to 27.2% in the second quarter of 2018 from 26.7% in the previous period. How can tourism put a dent in that figure? According to the latest available figures from Stats SA, almost 700,000 people were employed in SA’s tourism sector in 2016, compared to just more than 500,000 in 2006, and President Cyril Ramaphosa has committed to seeing the  figure of 700,000 doubled.

In Greece, even while the country’s economy was in crisis, diminishing by more than 20% (from around 2009), 30-million visitors in 2017 ensured that employment was boosted by 6%. According to the UN Conference on Trade and Development’s economic development in Africa report 2017, Rwanda also experienced a leap in visitor numbers. In 2010, there were 283,000 visitors to the country, which had risen to 478,000 by 2013, a sizeable leap within a short space of time. One of the reasons for this was the fact that the government in Rwanda abolished certain visa requirements.

Rwanda’s experience is significant, since its recovery from the genocide in 1994 has been intense. The timeframe mirrors SA’s dawn of democracy, yet Rwanda had to almost entirely replace its infrastructure to become an economic hub in East Africa. Within the same timeframe, SA has lagged behind in development and has been plagued with scandals and economic setbacks.

Tourism and GDP

That said, the global average contribution tourism makes is 10% of GDP, yet in SA that percentage is 9%. Across the continent the contribution to GDP has increased from 6.8% to 8.5% on average, so it is entirely plausible that tourism has the potential to transform not just the lives of those working in the industry, but the shape of the entire country.

Even while the Cape has been recovering from the drought it has continued to collect some remarkable global accolades and awards. It was recently reported that most international visitors are return visitors. We remain in the spotlight as a world-class destination: the challenge is to continue to attract and retain new visitors, bringing them here time after time.

Only by undoing spectator mentality where we just look on helplessly can we achieve tangible results

The fact that international arrivals are on the rise despite our challenges, including visas, shows that without barriers to entry and with enhancements to our infrastructure this growth could enjoy a sharp upturn.

Let’s be straightforward, though: it has been a tough time for tourism professionals, and the silver lining still seems quite distant. We’re working across a number of fronts and with many organisations to shift the goal posts and accelerate our recovery and move towards sustainable growth and development. Our collaborative efforts and initiatives form part of an industry-wide strategy to see our president’s vision realised — more jobs created, fewer unemployed South Africans, and the creation of a tourism environment that will last.

Our efforts are participative and come at a cost to ourselves and our organisations: our time and energy, as well as resources, are being pumped into these initiatives. This may be happening behind the scenes, but it is most certainly taking place. While the country faces a recession, we’re looking to the future and working towards it. There’s no other response that can help to reverse the recession, and only by undoing spectator mentality where we just look on helplessly can we achieve tangible results.

Figures of hundreds of thousands of jobs being created are impressive and daunting, but the target is achieved as any target is — one job at a time. For every plane-load of visitors that arrives, we’re shifting towards our goal.

Let’s not forget domestic travel: it, too, is our life’s blood. Yes, our locals have seen their budgets diminished, but travel remains attainable if you choose to do so. In fact, it’s an essential if you want to see the potential SA has too offer. This is a country of inspiration, with amazing attractions to see and experiences to be had, many of which are affordable or even free.

Tourism isn’t just an abstract concept, it’s something we can all enjoy.

• Duminy is CEO of Cape Town Tourism.