SA tourism industry needs special attention, Mr President


The South African tourism industry urgently needs President Cyril Ramaphosa to set out practical steps for addressing challenges in his State of the Nation Address on Thursday, not just broad strokes on the importance of the industry for the SA economy.

This is the call from Christelle Grohmann, director of the specialist tourism division at BDO South Africa.

"The tourism sector is one of the major contributors to the development of the SA economy. We must look for where the opportunities are, and then tackle related challenges head-on," she tells Fin24.

Collaborate across departments

She would like to see, in the days after SONA, steps taken for various ministries - including police, tourism, transport, public enterprises and communications - to put heads together and come up with meaningful plans to boost the tourism industry and do everything possible to grow tourism in the country.

"Following a challenging period due to the water crisis, the tourism sector is one of the few bright spots in the South African economy. The tourism industry is a growing economic sector globally, and South Africa in particular. However, there is still so much potential for the tourism sector to assist South Africa as a whole achieve its economic goals," says Enver Duminy, CEO of Cape Town Tourism.

"Ahead of this year's State of the Nation Address, I am hoping to hear how President Ramaphosa will be highlighting how his government will be continuing its efforts to support and grow tourism in South Africa."

While for Duminy the scrapping of the need for visitors to South Africa to carry unabridged birth certificates for minors travelling to the country was a positive development for the tourism industry, he points out that major challenges still remain of which safety and security is an important one as it is a concern for travellers not to SA. Uncertainty around Eskom's power supply is another challenge he hopes Ramaphosa will address in SONA.

"While it is a bright spot, tourism in South Africa is a perishable commodity. When every 12 tourists translate into one new job, we should be fighting to retain every single visitor to our city and country," says Duminy.

"As Cape Town Tourism, part of the wider tourism sector, we are doing everything in our power to do this, but decisive leadership must come from our president."

Jerry Mabena, CEO of Thebe Tourism Group, says from the previous SONA, it was clear that government intended to resolve SA's economic challenges in collaboration with the private sector. However, in his view, there remain fundamental issues currently undermining these intentions. Issues such as the SAA saga, Eskom and high levels of violent crimes targeted at tourists - factors severely impacting growth in the tourism sector. "It would therefore be encouraging to hear from Mr President what the government's practical plans are to deal with these," said Mabena.

Slower growth

Hospitality body FEDHASA Cape spokesperson, Richard Lyon, says there are signs of slower growth in the hospitality industry. Visitors are enjoying shorter stays and are booking closer to their dates of travel. "Sentiment among Western Cape members remains positive despite challenges faced by the industry and mixed results over the Festive Season," he adds.

According to Margie Whitehouse, newly appointed chief tourism officer of Wesgro (the official tourism, trade and investment promotion agency for Cape Town and the Western Cape) and a brand marketing expert, it is important to look at South Africa as whole destination brand.

She too sees greater collaboration a a key challenge to address.

"Provinces have to work together and there must also be collaboration between local and national tourism sectors in order to unite and present the best the country has to offer to the world," Whitehouse tells Fin24.

"This is a different approach than each province or tourism body having its own silos, just focusing on getting their own offerings out there. Collaboration is the way to get more from the limited budgets available."

In her view, the same goes for encouraging domestic tourism. In this regard she realises affordability is a challenge, but feels South Africans can be helped to discover hidden gems near where they are.

Current hurdles

Asked about dealing with the impact of perceptions about water issues in SA and how the Coronavirus plays out in the world, Whitehouse explains that there will always be crises happening somewhere. This makes effective crisis communication and crisis management - also in the tourism industry - critical.

Last but not least, she says addressing safety and security issues and perceptions should be a priority. She says it is estimated that up to 50% of potential visitors to SA are discouraged due to safety and security perceptions.

"Just as there was a task team to deal with the water issue, we need a task team to deal with safety and security and to showcase to potential travellers that they are welcome in SA," she says.

She is aware of the National Department of Tourism working on a security programme and says these issues remain key priorities for Wesgro to address too.

Members of the Association of Southern African Travel Agents (ASATA) have indicated that leisure travel in particular has been affected by Coronavirus fears.

ASATA CEO Otto de Vries says travel suppliers such as cruise lines, airlines and tour operators have implemented proactive measures to mitigate risks.

Charnel Kara, tourism specialist at FNB Business, says changes in the local and global economy compel businesses in tourism to be proactive and agile in dealing with challenges and tap opportunities.

She too says the Coronavirus may likely have a major impact on tourism businesses, especially with China being identified as a key growth market for SA.

Last but not least, climate change is impacting the local tourism industry in the form of drought, storms and wild fires.

Green shoots

Despite challenges, a key trend is a growing interest in so-called "township tourism" among international visitors. Furthermore, the growing "gig economy" enables skilled part-time workers or freelancers to become part of the domestic tourism sector in South Africa.

From a tourism business perspective, the use of data and advanced AI is enabling businesses to be more competitive by obtaining insights to create personalised experiences for their customers.

One way technology can be used to make it easier for foreigners to visit SA, is the use of electronic visas (e-visas), according to VFS Global's regional group chief operating officer Jiten Vyas. SA is currently running a pilot project in this regard.

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