SA tourism industry must get its 'parochial' head out of the sand and transform - deputy minister

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  • SA's tourism industry is lagging far behind regarding transformation, says Deputy Tourism Minister Fish Mahlalela.
  • Transforming the tourism industry would require uncomfortable, but all-inclusive conversations, he says.
  • For him, skills development is central, as the level of education has been shown to be directly related to unemployment.

The South African tourism industry must get its "parochial head out of the sand" and transform, according to Deputy Tourism Minister Fish Mahlalela.

SA's tourism industry is lagging far behind regarding transformation, research recently presented to Parliament covering the past 26 years, shows and this is very worrying, he said during a webinar hosted by the Tourism Department on Wednesday.

"It requires that we engage in very uncomfortable, but all-inclusive conversations about the nature and character of the post-Covid-19 society we want to realise. We need to create opportunities for everybody," said Mahlalela.

"Like all crises, the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed opportunities which we [should not] ignore at our own peril. We must have the courage to reinvent the future."

He pointed out the fact that one of the biggest developmental and strategic challenges SA faces is the high level of unemployment.

"We all know the Fourth Industrial Revolution is affecting all economic processes and has increased the demand for skilled and semi-skilled workers," said Mahlalela.
 
"The aim of the webinar is to ensure we are on the right track for developing skills, especially among women and the youth, so they can become the agents of change now and beyond Covid-19. We can, therefore, not talk about inclusive growth without thinking of our youth and women of this country."

Misalignment

One of the issues raised during the webinar was the existence of a "misalignment" between course content and the skills needed by the tourism, hospitality and conservation industries.

"The content of tourism, hospitality and conservation courses are outdated, and we need to revise and come up with new ones," said Mahlalela.

"The private sector and all other role players must create pathways for work opportunities so young people can upskill themselves. These networks will allow young people to increase their availability for jobs and self-employment."

Small businesses

Mahlalela pointed out that SA's tourism sector is dominated by SMEs, so it is critical that people in the industry get training. This is, however, frequently not the case and is the reason why it is such a low-skills sector currently.

"We cannot expect after Covid-19 or during the new normal that things will go back to how they were," he said. "It is also about how to cultivate activities in areas which currently have under-developed tourism sectors. It is also about how to contribute to rural areas so they can explore tourism opportunities."

A further important aspect in skills development for the tourism industry he pointed to, is to empower individuals not just to be employees, but, more importantly, to be able to think creatively in order to be able to start their own businesses.

"We are working on how best to ensure small players are becoming part of the value chain in the industry by working together with companies to be empowered and share in what is provided by government and be able to sustain themselves," he said.

Affordability

Another aspect he raised is the challenge of affordability in the SA tourism sector.

"SA's tourism market is not structured for domestic tourism, but for the international market. That is why it sometimes becomes difficult for South Africans themselves to explore their own country and enjoy what the industry has to offer," he explained.

"What is critical for all of us is to see how to mobilise domestic travel and since the region is now open how to mobilise the region to make sure they are able to assist in the recovery process by making sure they visit our establishments and our attractions. We must work together to see how we can deal with that."

Crucial to revive tourism

Tourism has been a very important sector for South Africa's economy, and it is, therefore, crucial to revive it, economist Dr Thabi Leoka said during the webinar.

"All stakeholders realise this, and we expect more hands on deck in the process. I am on the president's economic advisory council and I say that four sectors stand out to help us recover from the pandemic, namely mining, manufacturing, tourism and to an extent, the agriculture sector," she said.

She pointed out that it is estimated that globally, the tourism industry stands to lose more than a trillion dollars due to the impact of the pandemic, setting it back 20 years. At the same time, before the pandemic, the tourism industry contributed more to SA's economy than the amount government had to go and lend from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for Covid-19 relief, she said.

"We often hear the bigger companies and those representing the more well-known key players in the sector and yet we seldom hear about the wood carvers along the road and the dancers on the street, who entertain tourists. I have not heard their voices or seen them in discussions to understand where they are," she suggested.

In response to the issue of government funding for the tourism sector being raised during the webinar, Leoka said the fiscus finds itself in a predicament.

"There is an assumption that government has a running tap of money. But we're at a critical point. When the pandemic hit, we were already in a recession and government had to try and re-appropriate funds from various government departments into providing a safety net for the economy. Unfortunately, re-appropriations mean cutting other budgets, like that of tourism," she said.

Digital learning

During a panel discussion, Karen Borain, training and development manager of Tsogo Sun Hotels, said there is excellent digital learning and training information available online, the challenge is just to help people interested in working in the tourism and hospitality industry to get internet access.

Furthermore, in her view, one of the biggest challenges regarding unemployment is that the youth is not encouraged already at school level to become entrepreneurs.

Dr Kaitano Dube, a lecturer on ecotourism at the Vaal University of Technology, pointed out that unreliable access to electricity and the cost of data are hampering access to so-called blended learning.

"The gap between rich and poor will increase due to the ability to access learning or not. Education has a very important role to play to ensure successful transformation. Large companies can play a leading role to ensure everyone can be part of this," he said.

He would also like to see government giving more work to small companies.

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