Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

Due to Covid-19 most, if not all, of Southern Africa’s economies are poised for a tough five to 10 years due to issues that include economic shrinkage, job losses and declining export earnings.

This suggests most economies will be in survival mode for the next three to five years, with respective governments doing all they can to keep the economic sectors they can sustain running without job losses for as long as they can.

Job losses come with social consequences that most regional governments do not want to deal with, such as crime, corruption, and public disgruntlement. In desperation to remedy the situation, some governments will access loans, whose interest payments can bring more harm than good to the continent.

Interest-bearing loans may be required to stimulate economic recovery, but from a philosophical standpoint are never a good way to spend taxpayer money. Often governments wind up paying more than they can borrow due to penalties incurred over and above the interest and principal lent.

So before taking this leap, using whatever remains in the treasury on sectors that can be sustained despite the Covid scourge is a critical short-term strategy.

One of the sectors governments should consider boosting is tourism. However, instead of targeting international tourists the industry should prioritise the domestic market. To ensure it obtains better returns, the sector should invest in knowing its customers.

When compared to international visitors, domestic tourists have different spending trends and travel times, and prefer different experiences. This means tourism boards and companies need to first understand then implement solutions that are appropriate to the targeted customers.

Marketing campaigns should not be gimmicky and done in a “because we can’t get the international tourist” way, as this will not win tourism regions or industries any favours or followers. It may work during the first wave of the campaign, but numbers will diminish during the second and subsequent waves.

Authenticity is critical, and the only way the industry can deliver on its mandate is through an appeal to the domestic tourist’s heart. Pleasing the heart ensures repeat purchasing, advocacy and increased spend during the next visit.

But how does the industry please its customers’ hearts? First by being inclusive. Recruitment policies that are pro local community should be considered. As a parent, it would be great to be served at a hotel or restaurant where my children work. There’s also a sense of pride that comes with this upliftment, and it encourages a community to also consider patronising areas where they didn't previously spend their money because it seemed like it wasn’t for them.

Local recruitment enables the sharing of information on the attractions a hotel or restaurant has, which sparks interest and encourages local inhabitants to give the place a try.

In addition, offerings such as loyalty programmes can be tailored for local community patronage. This level of inclusivity is critical to the sector turning the corner. People are more inclined to spend in a place when they know some of their own are benefiting. It is an incentive to patronise a place.

In addition to recruitment, inclusivity could be extended to create community hangouts and hotspots. For instance, if a hotel or restaurant is close to the local community’s best traditional cuisine cook, why not invite them to cook a dish or two for the hotel’s guests? Not only does this give them an opportunity to experience cooking for a different clientele, it also puts the word out in the local community, which is then more likely to patronise the hotel or restaurant concerned.

Such inclusion opens up dialogue for further collaboration, including recipe exchanges, spice and other condiment development (including the potential to commercialise and create alternative revenue streams) and room to expand the menu and cater to both the international and domestic tourist in a different way. Themed nights can be adopted, which could increase local community patronage as well.

Uplifting local heroes is thus one of the inclusive ways that can be considered to boost domestic tourism.

Another way to appeal to the heart is through befitting packages. Understanding the family structure  of the domestic customer to develop offerings that are built around this construct is central to making tourism offerings more affordable to local tourists. Offers that cover and entice the entire family and not just benefit the organisation are some of the things that need to be considered.

These could include multiple passes for theme and recreation parks, family travel and accommodation reductions, experience packages that keep families engaged throughout their entire stay, and so much more.

In essence, the packages should encourage more people from a home to travel instead of the current single (for business) or couple travel and accommodation packages, which are more expensive when projected to the family as whole. Packages that push for volumes but do not compromise on quality are, therefore, another strategy that can be implemented to appeal to the domestic customer’s heart.

For the industry and also for the domestic customer, another aspect to consider is the transport corridors and integrating tourism offerings around these corridors. What tourism attractions (man-made) can be strategically placed around transport corridors that will entice tourists to detour and spend time at your facility before proceeding on their journey? In addition, what cultural experiences can be incorporated into these tourism centres that enthuse the passing tourist and uplift communities through employment and industry/sector development?

It is wrong to believe domestic tourists are not viable when compared to international counterparts. The industry just hasn’t been prioritising them, but now is the best time to better understand them and offer solutions that will get them to buy-in and be a staple for the industry from a consumption standpoint.

Maposa is founder of  market research, strategy and monitoring and evaluation consultancy Birguid. This article is based on a regional tourism study completed by the consultancy, outlining opportunities and industry developments within Southern Africa’s tourism industry with a particular focus on SA, Namibia, and Botswana.

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