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The Travel and Tourism Development Index, which is updated by the World Economic Forum (WEF) every two years, benchmarks and measures “the set of factors and policies that enable the sustainable and resilient development of the tourism sector” within 117 countries, including SA. The 2021 survey was released towards end of 2022. 

The past two years have been extremely challenging for global tourism. The Covid-19 pandemic was the worst crisis the global travel and tourism sector has faced in modern times. Lockdowns, travel restrictions, consumer fears and economic downturns led to a loss of $4.5-trillion in global travel and tourism activity, and the loss of 62-million jobs worldwide in 2020 alone. 

While increasing vaccination rates, easing of travel restrictions and economic growth have helped kick-start a recovery, it remains slow, uneven and fragile. Most countries are now reopening their economies following the worst of the Covid-19 crisis, including revitalising their domestic and foreign tourism industries. This brings into focus the wide range of factors that contribute to a country’s ability to develop its tourism sector. 

According to the 2021 Travel & Tourism Development report, aside from the US (which was second in the global tourism development ranking), the top 10 scoring countries are high-income economies in the Europe, Eurasia or Asia-Pacific regions. Japan tops the ranking, with fellow regional economies Australia and Singapore coming in seventh and ninth, respectively. SA was ranked 68th in 2021, unchanged from the 2019 ranking. Its score is below the global average and similar to the score ascribed to Kazakhstan, Montenegro, Dominican Republic and Serbia. 

A detailed breakdown and assessment of SA’s tourism development score provides some interesting insights. First, SA scores highly in the category related to the demand drivers of tourism, in particular natural resources (national parks and nature reserves, landscapes, richness of fauna), in which it ranks an impressive 13th in the world; non-leisure resources (factors that drive non-leisure travel, including medical travel, ranked 21st); and cultural resources (ranging from archaeological sites to entertainment facilities, ranked 26th).  

Second, in key areas SA’s tourism score is shockingly low. A key example is the global ranking of 112/117 in safety & security. This reflects the extent to which a country exposes locals, tourists and businesses to security risks. Another clear area of weakness is passenger rail and port infrastructure (ranked 73rd).

Uplifting SA’s transport infrastructure and reducing crime would benefit a huge array of industries extending well beyond the tourism sector. This, in turn, would lift consumer and business confidence, encourage private sector fixed investment and create employment, thereby boosting the government’s tax revenue collection and overall popularity. Yet the government appears content to merely highlight its policy intentions, rather than implement key reforms. 

Third, SA ranks a respectable 43rd in the world in terms of the price competitiveness of its tourism sector. It is known, internationally, as a relatively low-cost travel destination, although the market can accommodate both the budget-conscious traveller and those tourists looking for a more luxurious experience.  

Fourth, exploring the WEF’s detailed assessment of SA’s travel and tourism sectors, it can be argued that we are being underrated in a few key areas. These include a rating of 109/117 in environmental sustainability, which includes factors such as the protection of natural resources and exposure to weather-related events. While SA falls short in some areas, this ranking seems harsh and undeserved. The same can be argued for SA’s ranking of 71/117 in tourist service infrastructure, which includes the availability of tourist accommodation, car rental, resort and leisure facilities and ATMs. 

Fifth, the WEF’s Travel & Tourism Development report does an excellent job in highlighting the correlation between the development of the tourism sector and a broad range of social, economic and policy metrics. For example, the reliability of police services matters far more to the development of tourism than the cost of hotels. Exploring these relationships can help to identify the most important areas for development. 

Overall, SA’s tourism sector is recovering from the effect of the Covid-19 restrictions. Domestic flights have increased substantially relative to 2020, and on some routes (depending on the airline) business is back to about 70% of pre-Covid volumes. Unfortunately, while outbound international travel has also increased meaningfully, inbound international travel continues to lag. 

SA’s tourism industry represents a major growth opportunity, and the sector has the ability to add significant employment, given its high level of labour intensity. There are strong forward and backward linkages to other key economic sectors that tend to have a low import intensity.

The most obvious top five areas requiring more a responsive, innovative and caring set of policy reforms are electricity supply, transport infrastructure (including public transport), measures to combat crime and violence, provision of water and sanitation, as well as education linked to the requirements of individual industries.

Hopefully, the government will recognise the urgency of policy reform and be willing to more fully embrace the private sector in partnering to unlock SA’s economic potential.

• Lings is Stanlib chief economist. 


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