Coastal beauty: Tourism adds 9% to SA’s  GDP  iStock
Coastal beauty: Tourism adds 9% to SA’s GDP iStock

The SA tourism industry is an indolent, slow-to-rise giant, hamstrung by lack of common purpose and an inadequate marketing budget.

That’s the assessment of the palpably frustrated CE of the Southern Africa Tourism Services Association, David Frost, who believes passionately that with more "synergies" and a greater collective effort, it could be so different.

"All this pain [over the visa debacle and the poor press SA attracts] is self-inflicted," he says. "We’ve gone backwards. Our brand now is not just smelly, it’s toxic.

"You have stories of people being turned away at airports [because of visa problems]. Parents start shouting and children start crying. It’s an entire gedoente. Passengers waiting to be served start to take notice, heads turn. What you have, in effect, is a public relations disaster."

Frost compares the SA tourist sector to Australia’s, which is significantly bigger, better-resourced and more internationally competitive. But there are several compelling similarities. Both industries find themselves in economies where mining was formerly the grootbaas. Both are long-haul destinations (it takes seven hours to fly from
Singapore to Melbourne) where the land’s natural beauty and the outdoor life play an important part in everyday culture.

We’ve gone backwards. Our brand now is not just smelly, it’s toxic
David Frost

The Indian market provides the perfect illustration of how intrinsic factors have stymied tourism’s huge growth potential. In 2008, SA received 50,000 Indian arrivals; four years later the figure had jumped to 106,000; by 2015, however, the number had dropped to 78,000 for a combination of reasons: visa processing inefficiency, Ebola virus fears, and lack of sensitivity to the uniqueness of the Indian market — for instance, that 65% of Indians visit SA in winter and tend to decide to travel unusually quickly.

This is unlike, say, Germans, who plan trips here months in advance to escape the European winter, meaning they travel to SA at the height of our summer.

Johan Groenewald, MD of Royal African Discoveries, says the tour operator brings about 4,000 Indians per year to SA. Groenewald, who has been working in this market for 15 years, says the SA consulate in Mumbai and high commission in Delhi are never prepared for the annual upsurge in visa applications in high season. "There’s a total lack of planning. We warn them about it every year and they keep on doing it. This year, after the minister of tourism intervened, they finally got additional staff flown across to help with the processing, but the numbers could have been a lot better."

Big attraction: The Kruger National Park iStock
Big attraction: The Kruger National Park iStock

Both destinations have cachet and a certain exotic appeal. Tourism is now the largest sector of the Aussie economy with the waning of mining and manufacturing.

Frost sees no reason why this can’t be the same here.

Tourism puts food on the table for one in seven South Africans and accounts for 9% of GDP. There were 2.1m overseas arrivals in SA last year, up 11% year-on-year, though this needs to be seen in the context of a currency which fell sharply against the euro and the dollar.

"There [in Australia] they treat [tourism] as an export sector. We just don’t market it that way. The Aussies do. People just bring money to you in exchange for an experience. You’re exporting Australia," Frost says.

While the Aussies have a more streamlined approach to marketing a more homogenous entity, SA seems hamstrung by a lack of shared purpose. Frost likens it to a babble of languages. Such dissonance — between, say, the promise of a fabulous SA holiday and home affairs unable to process paperwork in time — means tourists go elsewhere. Some will never return.

"The interesting thing about tourism is that no-one gets it right on their own, so there’s a real model of co-operation buried in there and there’s a public-good element, too. What happens in all of this to the Soweto guesthouse? Tsogo Sun has the budget to advertise and promote itself, but who takes care of the guesthouse?"

Processing time is still an issue, according to Groenewald. At the beginning of peak season, visas that were supposed to come out in five days took a month. This can put tourists off for life. "Also, this is a market that decides to travel at the last minute. If they decide to go on holiday in two weeks’ time, we have to make them aware of the visa situation and often they’ll divert to another destination."

Groenewald confirms the statistics — that the Indian market did pick up last year — but there are still industry frustrations. Initially, for example, visa restrictions meant people had to apply in person, which would have killed the market entirely ("A lot of tour operators stopped selling SA completely," says Groenewald), but that was then relaxed after the interministerial committee.

Still, there doesn’t seem to be sufficient urgency by all the roleplayers. "Only now are we beginning to regain lost ground," says Frost. "We’ve got Jonty Rhodes, a great team at SA Tourism and a devaluating currency against the rupee.

"What more can you ask for?"

While the Indians are crazy about the Garden Route, the market is still besotted with SA’s wildlife and game, with 85% of tourists citing game parks and wildlife as their prime reasons for visiting. Such fascination brings local communities onto centre stage, groups that have been traditionally neglected by the industry.

Tourism has the potential to build
this country in a
way that few other sectors can

Colin Bell, who co-founded Wilderness Safaris in 1983, points to Botswana as an example of what could be done. There the government reversed its tourism policy in the early 1990s by moving away from mass, largely self-drive, camping tourism. Instead it created reserves and a host of superb safari camps that employed large numbers of local people. Now 60% of everyone who lives around the Okavango Delta and 45% of the population in the north of the country rely on tourism. This has increased travel in that direction and reduced migration to the cities, and is partly why Botswana has no informal settlements.

Which comes back to Frost’s point that no-one gets tourism right on their own. Poor communities should be a key component of a more holistic, collaborative approach. Bell notes that irate locals not long ago barricaded the entrance to Kruger National Park at the Paul Kruger gate. The SA tourism sector too often simply ignores the poor communities.

Communities have invaded sections of some of the country’s reserves and grow maize because they have not been integrated into the mainstream of the sector. Bell points out that Botswana ploughs 6% of tourism revenue back into community structures, creating a blend of government, private sector and communities working hand in hand.

In SA, by contrast, communities generally benefit little (aside from the occasional job) from the wildlife attractions on their doorstep, which is partly why we have a poaching problem. Bell proposes that a reasonable levy on entry fees to national parks and game reserves goes to the local community. This would engender goodwill, trust and willingness to co-operate.

There are two ways that tourists come to SA, says Bell: direct and through tour operators. For years, SA Tourism simply threw money into advertising on CNN and National Geographic, using random slogans and concepts like "inspiring new ways", and a blind man who experienced SA through the senses. "But that doesn’t bring in the Chinese or the Brits or anybody," says Bell. "We let our good taste overrule the market’s bad tastes."

But it is not all doom and gloom. SA Tourism’s new marketing campaign looks promising and could be the catalyst of good things to come.

But Bell also senses a disconnect between local tourism’s R1.2bn budget and the rewards in terms of tourist numbers. If the budget were doubled, he says, better marketing could easily double the number of tourists. "If you think of the diversity we’ve got [compared to Australia], with Europe in the same time zone and everything going for us, we could comfortably go from 2m to 4m tourists — it’s not a pipe dream."

What’s needed is a more strategic approach to both the direct visitor and those who book or travel with tour operators. With the latter, the easiest way to grow market share is joint marketing initiatives, says Bell. "You tell an overseas company: ‘Put R1m into marketing SA and we’ll match it.’ This all needs to be monitored, but generally companies are not going to throw that money down the toilet — they’ll use it to effectively market SA," says Bell.

Ngawethu Dlabantu, owner of Backpackers On New in the Eastern Cape and a former tour operator, says the tourism sector is mostly made up of small players, which makes it difficult to forge links with foreign players.

"What we do need is perhaps more partnerships with government. A lot of what they do either helps us grow or hurts us. I know that some municipalities try to punt local B&Bs and small operators on their websites, but this is not enough. From municipal to national level there needs to be a concentrated effort to advertise us. We all will benefit."

Dlabantu says the sector has improved a great deal since the visa rules were relaxed. "For most tourism-related businesses, the weakness in the economy has actually been good. We have seen a spike in the number of overseas travellers coming through our doors," she says.

Meisie Nkosi, MD at Bella Bonni guesthouse in eMalahleni, says that apart from marketing, government could help with equipping small businesses in the sector with knowledge. "There are black entrepreneurs in this space, like me. We need more knowledge to be able to thrive in this industry as there is so much to learn. We were born hospitable, but we need to learn how to make business out of our excellent hospitality." Nkosi, who has 10 years of experience in the sector, says there is a need for exposure to the formal way of doing business, as there are a lot of guidelines on how to properly provide service to people.

Nkosi got such exposure through Tsogo Sun’s entrepreneur programme, which provides coaching and mentorship.

Aside from the need for increased marketing budgets — Frost says he can’t understand why the department of arts & culture has a budget of R4.2bn compared with only a quarter of that for tourism — is the need to address the challenges of "geographic spread" and "seasonality". For example, while Indians and Italians tend to come here in winter, other tourists generally come to SA in the summer. They also tend to follow the same routes, avoiding Johannesburg, going to the Kruger, swanning down the Garden Route and ending up drinking wine and sampling the delights of the Western Cape.

Frost points out that while repeater rates are good, average length of stay is declining — maybe because SA’s beauty and diversity just isn’t being promoted effectively enough.

Too much that is beautiful and exciting in the country — the Drakensberg, Cederberg, Southern Cape, the Karoo, Limpopo — tends to get overlooked or neglected. Parts of SA, such as KwaZulu Natal, have fewer tourists because of inadequate marketing and lack of awareness of SA’s splendid diversity.

The industry is also bedevilled by what some might call the intangibles. There is a pervasive but reluctantly expressed feeling among power brokers and budget allocators in government that tourism is a white enclave designed to perpetuate white privilege and economic power. Such perceptions will not be addressed until a macro-body or an individual — perhaps a minister — gets everyone around a table.

Besides, if the industry grows, it’s a win-win game for more people; the current alternative, where the industry grows at rates that benefit only the major market players, is not viable in the long term.

Tourism in SA, particularly in relation to a leaky economy, has the potential to build this country in a way that few other sectors are able to do. But it needs political will, leadership, a holistic approach and a bigger budget. Only then will it be able to put food on the table for many more than just one in seven South Africans.

What it means:
A lack of vision and a limited budget mean that tourism isn’t contributing as much as it could

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