South Africa's tourism industry must not be allowed to regress during the coronavirus pandemic to the point that it looks like "pre-1994", Tourism Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane told Parliament's portfolio committee on tourism on Monday.
She also remained steadfast in her conviction that empowerment criteria for small businesses seeking relief were a matter of law.
The committee is concerned that tourism is one of the industries hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic, resultant travel bans and lockdown restrictions.
While Level 4 of lockdown has allowed a partial return to economic activity, several sectors related to tourism remain impacted. Restaurants may only open for takeaways and deliveries, during certain hours, while accommodation establishments will remain closed.
Some industry experts, including the minister herself, have predicted that the sector may only start up again by December this year, starting with domestic tourism.
Empowerment criteria a matter of law
SA Tourism is, in conjunction with the Department of Tourism, busy drafting a Covid-19 recovery plan after obtaining input from the industry.
One of the measures already publicly announced is emergency funding earmarked to assist tourism businesses. However, the plan has drawn controversy due to containing broad-based black economic empowerment (BB-BEE) criteria.
Union Solidarity and its associate AfriForum took the department to court to challenge the matter, but their bid was unsuccessful. Solidarity has since vowed to escalate the matter to Constitutional Court.
But the minister said that for her, adhering to the criteria was not negotiable.
"As a minister I must never be found to be flexible when implementing the laws of this country," she told the committee, with reference to the case.
The R200 million in emergency funding earmarked for tourism companies is to be capped at R50 000 per business. This means only 4 000 companies can be helped, yet more than 11 000 applications have already been received.
Kubayi-Ngubane said the court bid appeared to be a campaign to discredit her and her department, accusing them of racism in applying criteria for Covid-19 assistance.
But exemptions exist
"I don't know where these allegations come from. We have a policy of BB-BEE in this country. People must understand where we come from and that the playing field must be made equal," she said.
"We can never sustain this country if we remain an unequal society with the majority on the sidelines of the economy."
Furthermore, she expressed surprise about reports that many tourism businesses chose not even to apply to be considered for the department's Covid-19 aid, because they are not BEE compliant. This, while exemptions exist for small businesses.
"It does not mean that if you are a 'white company' you cannot be exempted for BEE," she emphasised.
Kept awake at night
Kubayi-Ngubane said what keeps her awake at night is the fear that those women and small businesses the department have already helped as part of its SMME tourism incentive market access programmes before the virus broke out, will be "lost" once the pandemic is over.
"We worked so hard to enable them to be part of the tourism sector. We put money into nurturing their businesses and helping them to start gaining market access. We want them to be able to continue after the pandemic is over," she said.
During the Department of Tourism's presentation to the committee, it was noted that so far, 28 513 workers in the tourism and hospitality industry have used the help of the Tourism Business Council of SA to apply for UIF due to having lost their jobs as a result of the Covid-19 impact. Almost 800 businesses have been assisted with applications too.
The United Nations World Tourism Organisation predicts that global international tourist arrivals could decline between 20% and 30% due to the pandemic, down from an estimated growth of 3% to 4% forecast in early January 2020.
This could translate into a total global loss of US$30 to $50 billion in spending by international visitors.