A burden of despondency has been weighing heavily on SA, with concerns ranging from coffee-shop hysteria on emigration, to gender violence and the recent xenophobic disgrace.

Running contrary to this, a fully fledged tourism app built in just six weeks by a Youth Employment Service (Yes) participant completing his first coding course at the Yes Tembisa Hub dropped into my updates. Likewise, a report from partners at Wildtrust showed Nedbank’s Yes youth at Wildoceans educating tourists on whale-watching, acting as guides and hosting visitor tours that explore the history of whales in Durban.

Indulging in pessimism is a dangerous pastime. It risks us overlooking the sheer wealth of potential underlying the powerful combination of our country’s youth and the tourism sector for tackling economic growth and unemployment.

SA has much to offer: foreign tourists are able to visit this country, enjoy near-perfect weather, breathtaking scenery and Michelin-quality plates, most at a fraction of the price offered on their continent. We should be inviting people in.

The theme for World Tourism Month in September was “Tourism and jobs: A better future for all.” This is particularly significant since drawing the country’s youth into work means targeting high-growth sectors that — as finance minister Tito Mboweni emphasised in his economic policy paper — can also act as “conduits of labour-intensive growth”. 

Tourism is a particularly important sector in this regard, crying out for some pragmatic champion to play the ball and perform some fancy Cheslin Kolbe-like footwork through the myriad of surrounding bureaucratic alleyways.

It hits the sweet spot as a sector that can absorb semiskilled workers, and it features low barriers to entry for small businesses operating outside of SA’s urban centres.

If you want to drive inclusive growth, this is good place to do it.

Female employers

Advantageously, global evidence demonstrates that tourism offers women and youth more career opportunities than other sectors. Research by the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) reveals that the female share of employment in travel and tourism in SA (53.7%) is higher than the proportion of total female employment in our economy (43.7%) — a trend echoed in 10 other Group of 20 countries.

Globally, tourism holds twice as many female employers as other sectors, accounts for as many as one in every 10 jobs worldwide, and was responsible for one in five of all new jobs created over the past five years.

Given our youth unemployment crisis, these stats demand attention.

Furthermore, it requires less formal education and training, offers flexible work opportunities and needs only minimal financing for entrepreneurs. This has enabled Yes and our implementation partners to see great potential in the sector.

To date, Yes has secured 21,000 work experiences with our partners in the private sector, and 60% of placements are female. Of these, more than 1,000 paid work opportunities have been created for youth specifically in the tourism and hospitality sector in Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal.

These youth are gaining skills and experience in positions ranging from environmental assistants, field rangers and tour guides, to hotel and spa managers, whale watchers and even event co-ordinators. An additional 120 Yes youth will soon be trained to fill various positions within the aviation industry, embarking on a work opportunity at an African airline during October.

Digital training

Unlocking the true potential of the tourism industry for jobs involves growing the sector itself, leveraging fourth industrial revolution tourists to our shores and enhancing the overall quality of our tourism experience.

Yes youth are thus receiving digital training to help market SA’s boutique hotels and lodges to the world, gaining the skills necessary to maintain occupancy rates via coded platforms and manage other digital collateral, such as experimental videos and photographs, customising visits digitally, visitor ratings and feedback.

Take the case of Asanda Nqoko, who registered at the Yes Tembisa Hub and was profiled on a psychometric tool through which he joined an apptrepreneur class, starting with basic computer literacy. He created the above-mentioned tourism app only three months into his training and now has plans to establish his own media and web design company, which will build beautiful digital teasers of uniquely SA experiences, while offering a bookings platform to service other small, medium and micro enterprise (SMME) and tourism websites.

Technology and tourism further open access to local communities, stimulating small businesses and local economies through the multiplier effect. The Yes Mpumalanga Hub, launching in April 2020, will bridge the Kruger National Park economy with youth from Bushbuckridge and surrounding communities. By providing these young adults with the skills and experience necessary to become entrepreneurs, incubated SMMEs will then absorb youth labour as they service the sector.

Agriculture tunnels at the hub will grow organic produce within reach of numerous hotels and lodges, while artisanal maker spaces will train youth in solar installation, handyman tasks and plumbing to maintain the infrastructure of the park properties and bring them into the 21st century.

With Akani, a Mpumalanga-based development partner, youth are also being trained to participate in rhino protection projects at Care for Wild and EnviroNet Solutions. Recruits are being taught that a live rhino in the park brings in more income for their community in the long term than a dead rhino whose horn is smuggled out to distant markets. These youth will then act as vectors into the community, spreading the word on protection of the park and its link to their future.

This approach, brought to scale, may finally blur the lines between SA’s first and second economies, which has been such a devastating characteristic of our society, and which still compounds high unemployment. And it is for this reason that Mboweni’s recent call for greater support and regulatory reforms for the tourism industry should be given the greatest priority.

Additionally, SA’s tourism experience should be delivered via inclusive models that integrate communities, small business, youth and technology, and allow local communities to finally participate in the windfall a thriving tourism sector could bring.

By welcoming young hearts and minds into these new roles and projects, we can unleash the momentum that comes with the spirit of youth — which is exactly what we need to get us over the line.

• Dr Ismail-Saville is CEO of Yes, a joint initiative between business, labour and the government to tackle youth unemployment.