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Tourism minister Lindiwe Sisulu. File picture: TREVOR SAMSON.
Tourism minister Lindiwe Sisulu. File picture: TREVOR SAMSON.

SA’s airports and border posts are buzzing again as tourists start making their way back to the country after the easing of pandemic restrictions.

Tourism minister Lindiwe Sisulu declared at the launch of tourism month — celebrated each September — that the sector is poised for a “tremendous bounce-back”.

Backing up the minister’s enthusiasm are impressive data showing a respectable 147% increase in arrivals in the first six months of the year, driven by strong growth from the key markets of Europe and the Americas. Though not on the same level as before the pandemic, the return of international visitors has brought hope to the tourism and hospitality industries, which were hard-hit during the pandemic and lockdowns.

On the domestic front, enthusiasm for travel has perked up. Domestic trips more than doubled in the first half of the year as the sector experienced a surge in “revenge travel” — a phrase describing people wanting to travel to make up for lost time and forfeited experiences. Between January and June South Africans undertook 15.2-million domestic trips in what is seen as a big win for the tourism sector. Domestic trips are now greater in number than before the pandemic.

Though the latest data point to optimistic prospects for the sector, tourist choices and trends can be fickle, and many factors come into play when potential travellers consider which destinations and regions to support. Personal safety and security are important to would-be visitors’ choice of destination, and incidents of crime directed at tourists are threatening some of SA’s top tourism destinations.

For example, picturesque Mpumalanga, home to the Blyde River Canyon and the Kruger National Park, is marred by a high rate of reported crime in the area. News of hijackings, attempted hijackings, robberies, attacks and break-ins at tourism establishments do little to sell the region.

Poorly maintained roads, dysfunctional municipalities and load-shedding also detract from the appeal. Tourists do not want to visit decaying towns where streets are riddled with potholes and litter is strewn across the landscape.

For tourism to flourish the sector needs the government to pull up its socks. Crime must be brought under control; infrastructure maintained; and municipalities must get their act together to improve SA’s brand. Brand reputation is not something that can be advanced by the private sector alone.

When the Inclusive Society Institute convened a tourism sector dialogue in June as part of a broader research project on a new economic blueprint for the country, it was apparent that the sector does not feel fully appreciated. There is a view that the government does not recognise the importance of tourism, which according to Stats SA has a bigger direct contribution to GDP than either agriculture, utilities (electricity, gas and water) or construction. Tourism’s direct contribution to the economy in pre-pandemic 2019 was 3.7% of GDP, or more than R200bn.

Merely having a national tourism ministry is not enough in itself. The success of the industry relies on collaboration — among government departments, and between these departments and the private sector. One area in which a lack of co-operation is keenly felt is in the crafting of tourism strategies. Marketing strategies are often developed with a political focus, rather than with a commercial slant, and therefore have less impact than they could. Focusing too much on the Brics countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) may make political sense but does not deliver commensurate commercial dividends.

Another concern is that the government’s tourism growth agenda is focused too much on volume and not enough on value. SA must position itself as a destination that attracts “valuable” visitors who spend money throughout the value chain. To accelerate tourism growth will require the government and the private sector to sing from the same hymn sheet. Through representative bodies the private sector must communicate a clear message to the government about how tourism can contribute to economic growth and job creation, particularly for the youth. 

More practical suggestions for growing the tourism sector centre on immigration and visa policies. An expanded visa waiver regime is needed to make travel to SA easier for high-value tourists, and SA should consider recognising visas from other countries. It may also be time to reconsider the many bilateral agreements SA has in place for tourism and establish whether there are possibilities to improve on what has been provided for in those agreements.

Seat capacity in the domestic airline industry, particularly after the failure of Comair, operator of British Airways and Kulula, will need to be increased. The liquidation of Comair left SA with 40% less seat capacity, which together with fuel price hikes has contributed to skyrocketing prices for air travel. 

Price differentiation strategies must be more broadly employed to encourage South Africans and other Southern African Development Community residents to explore the country. Local tourism will be further encouraged by the fact that financial constraints and troubling global conflicts mean more South Africans will tend to take in the sites and experiences offered in their own country.

The World Travel & Tourism Council believes SA travel and tourism growth will outpace the national economy for the next 10 years. Its forecast shows that travel and tourism are projected to grow at an average rate of 7.6% a year and create more than 800,000 jobs. To capitalise on these rich tourism opportunities it is imperative that SA pulls together disparate constituencies to improve the country’s offerings for local and domestic travellers.

• Swanepoel is Inclusive Society Institute CEO

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