An efficient airport sets the tone for visitors’ appreciation of a country

2008-01-05 00:00

An upbeat group of visitors trooped off the overnight flight, excitedly looking forward to their holiday. As they filed past the aircraft crew bidding passengers goodbye, conversation turned to the issue of who might be appointed as the next Springbok rugby coach.

“It will probably be Heyneke Meyer,” said one. “He has the right credentials and experience, and I have read he will keep Victor Matfield sweet by making him captain.”

“That makes sense,” his friend replied, “but maybe SA Rugby will go for Pieter de Villiers. He has a strong record with the U21 team and I’ve heard his first move will be to reappoint John Smit as captain, which would ensure continuity after the World Cup win.”

“Well, they are due to announce the new coach on January 11, and we will still be here then, so we’ll have to keep an eye on the newspapers.”

By this time, the group had left the plane and successfully boarded a standing room only bus, which proceeded to take them on what felt like an interminable tour of an airport under construction. Passing through a dismal landscape of rubble and scaffolding, they lurched and swayed this way and that as the driver slammed on the brakes at every stop street.

The bus eventually came to a halt outside an unmarked double doorway. Everyone looked towards the driver, who disdainfully gestured for them to get off his bus and go through the doors.

Increasingly bewildered and meekly doing as they were told, as travellers are wont to do when they arrive in a foreign country, the visitors walked into a plain corridor and, with no signage or staff in sight, moved cautiously towards an escalator.

This took them to another hall, where they wandered down a staircase, along another corridor and up some stairs, arriving in a room where they finally found a uniformed official.

“Where do we go now?” they asked.

“That depends where you want to go,” the woman replied, cheerfully. Clearly, a group of increasingly agitated tourists was not going to spoil her morning.

“Well, customs and baggage collection would be good.”

“OK, you must wait here for another bus.”

“How long will that take?”

“About 20 minutes. The bus has just left.”

“That’s not good.”

“Well,” she replied, still smiling, “you should have got here earlier.”

The group’s patience and enthusiasm was just starting to fray at the edges, but they waited and eventually boarded the second bus, which took them on what seemed to be another interminable tour of an airport under construction, past more rubble and more scaffolding.

Arriving at another door, they walked into another hall and wandered along another hallway where they were instructed to join a long, slow-moving queue.

“What is this now?” one asked.

“It’s a security check, sir,” replied another person in uniform.

“But we haven’t even been through customs.”

“Just do as you’re told please, sir.”

Eventually, fully an hour and 40 minutes after their flight had touched down, the now not so upbeat group of visitors staggered into the baggage collection hall, gazing hopefully towards a conveyor belt that, with a little bit of luck, would disgorge their luggage on to the carrousel.

By this stage, no longer particularly interested in who was or was not to be appointed as the Springbok rugby coach, they had been acutely reminded how a smooth, efficient and swift arrivals system is essential for any country aspiring to be one of the world’s leading tourist destinations.

First impressions set the tone and linger for visiting tourists, business and sports people alike.

At this point in the proceedings, it might be expected that somebody in the group would have shrugged their shoulders and sarcastically declared, “Welcome to Africa” ... except this true story does not refer to overseas visitors arriving at O.R. Tambo International in Johannesburg, an airport undergoing a construction programme to increase its capacity from 17 to 24 million passengers per year.

In fact, it relates the experience of a group of South African

holiday-makers who this week flew out of the increasingly impressive O.R. Tambo International without any difficulty and arrived at the allegedly first world Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, France.

•Edward Griffith, a journalist, author and former CEO of SA Rugby, can be contacted at

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