GARY RYNHART: Make SA safe and the tourists will flock in
The state’s most important role in boosting the sector is to improve security; the private sector can take care of the rest
Former president Kgalema Motlanthe recently urged policymakers to look to Mexico as an example of state-led growth of the tourism sector.
Targeting the tourism sector as a growth sector makes sense. For a start, tourism brings in foreign currency, arguably the best and easiest form of trade. Second, it creates lots of jobs and, importantly, lots of lower skilled entry-level jobs. Third, most tourism enterprises are micro, small and medium-sized enterprises. Fourth, it creates geographically dispersed economic opportunity around the country.
While increasing, visitor numbers to SA are way below those of international rivals — 40-million is the expected number of visitors to Mexico in 2023 (tourism there contributes more than 8% to GDP and employs up to 4.4-million people). Official figures for SA put the number in the region of 10-million, but that includes all cross-border visitors. Industry insiders suggest the actual number of deep-pocket tourists could be as low as 2-million.
Besides SA’s offer to visitors — stunning wildlife, beautiful beaches, diverse ecosystems, edgy composition cities, rambling vineyards and fascinating history — the country has a number of other advantages in positioning itself as a top global tourism destination. For a start, it has a large English speaking/understanding population. It’s still really good value for money (the upside of a weak rand), and it’s in the middle of so many of its target markets.
The former president is right to suggest the tourism sector as a focus to create jobs. However, the main thing the state can do is improve security. That is the most important contribution of “state-led” involvement in supporting the sector — the private sector can mostly do the rest. According to the latest Travel & Tourism Development report, SA’s global ranking was a lowly 112 out of 117 in safety and security.
The global perception is SA isn’t safe. The news that a government minister (of transport, no less) was hijacked in November on the N2 made the headlines globally. The most recent crime statistics are appalling — the country’s per capita murder rate for 2022/23 is the highest in 20 years, and just a quarter of the population view the police as trustworthy.
But Mexico isn't “safe” either. In 2022 the homicide rate was 26.6 per 100,000 people. Global headlines of Mexican drug cartels and associated murders are not infrequent. Yet Mexico still gets 40-million visitors every year.
Perception and reality
Key tourism locations here need to be both safe and perceived to be safe (and most are). The message needs to be strongly conveyed that crime isn’t ubiquitous, and the areas most tourists visit are generally safe. That will only happen with serious, visible investment in tackling crime. In a country where criminal behaviour costs the economy a staggering 10% of GDP annually, new approaches are clearly needed.
There is much to be learnt from looking across the Atlantic. Several Latin American cities, such as Bogotá and Medellín in Colombia and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, have successfully reduced violent crime rates. Investment in building local frameworks, gun-free zones, fostering civic culture to reduce violence and focusing policing efforts on crime hotspots, have paid dividends.
Most of the successful approaches have been accompanied by “soft” measures such as urban upgrading, better urban planning, situational prevention and especially early childhood intervention. Public messaging on the importance of tourism in terms of jobs can help too. Even the guys who broke into the SA Rugby Union offices in Cape Town had the good sense not to steal the Webb Ellis Cup.
Advances in technology also help reduce crime rates. Many types of crime are predictable, not random. With some exceptions, they tend to cluster in time, space and among specific population groups. With access to real-time data — whether generated by crime-mapping platforms, gunshot-detection systems, CCTV or smart lights — authorities can get better at detecting incidents before a crime occurs.
The need to invest in these kinds of approaches is well recognised and contained in numerous strategies and plans to tackle crime. Cost is the biggest issue. But without investing properly the tourists will stay away, no matter how much Trevor Noah pleads with them to come.
• Rynhart is senior specialist in employers’ activities with the International Labour Organisation, based in SA.
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