New SA Tourism boss Sisa Ntshona plans to grow the number of foreign visitors to the country by 4m people in the next five years – a tough ask when considering that foreign visitors totalled 8.9m last year, according to data from the United Nations’ World Travel Organization (UNWTO).
Admittedly, the 2015 numbers were lower than expected – they reflected a year-on-year decline of nearly 7% – due to the impact strict new visa regulations had on foreign arrivals. Some of the rules have since been relaxed, but the tourism industry remains concerned about the need for travelling minors to have an unabridged birth certificate.
Speaking at a recent media breakfast at the SA Tourism offices in Johannesburg, Ntshona said 2015 was a “very bad year” for South African tourism. While numbers have recovered in 2016 – the latest data from Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) shows the number of tourists have increased by 14% year-on-year in August to 833 638 – Ntshona warned that this shouldn’t be celebrated as double-digit growth.
“Essentially we are trying to restore [tourist numbers] back to the level we were at,” he said.
Ntshona believes it is important to grow the industry’s contribution to the economy from the current estimated 9.4% of GDP to the “late teens”. He explained that there is a lot of pressure on South Africa’s economy to diversify – away from its reliance on natural resources – and he believes part of this diversification can come with tourism, and SA Tourism has a responsibility to help achieve this.
“Tourism is definitely under pressure from an expectation point of view in terms of how we are going to contribute towards getting this economy up and running again, because we touch on so many sectors,” said Ntshona.
It’s about collaboration
But meeting these expectations is not always easy.
“One of the things I have learnt very quickly is that the government space is one of what I call co-ordination failure. Because we functionally report to ministries, we forget to look horizontally at other role-players that impact our environment. Our messages must be aligned.”
Taking the visa regulation fiasco as an example, Ntshona explained that although he believes the department of home affairs was essentially coming from a good place in terms of trying to prevent potential child trafficking, the lack of co-ordination among the various role-players gave rise to unintended consequences.
For Ntshona, the delicate balance that needs to be struck is the ability to weigh up the challenges and address them without killing the economy in the process.
“We have left that conversation to much bigger, more important people than us – and it is being addressed at Cabinet level – but we definitely input our views and thoughts into that process in terms of getting around this,” he said.
SA Tourism also has to contend with limited resources. “Like any business we have limited resources and unlimited needs and wants. One of them is about the pocket of investment money that we have. Where do we invest? How do we decide which countries to target? Which do you leave out? You can’t be everywhere.”
Optimal return on investment when it comes to profiling South Africa around the world again comes down to collaboration, emphasised Ntshona.
“If you look at the latest stats, we can probably cover between 25 and 30 countries, little over 10% of the world’s countries.” However, by partnering with, say, the department of international relations and co-operation, SA Tourism immediately achieves points of presence in 126 countries, explained Ntshona. Looking ahead, it will be a case of finding out how to collaborate and share resources in this regard.
“I think we find ourselves in a very interesting space as a country. We are starting to see business getting together and saying issues of civil society are not just government’s problem, but they are our entire problem. [They] want to be part of that solution, and that’s a good thing. As SA Tourism, we are going to be tapping into this,” he said.
“We also need to be realistic. We don’t operate in a vacuum; we are competing with other countries. Why should people come here? Essentially, we are a long-haul destination.”
The business plan
For Ntshona, it’s all about how South Africa positions itself.
“If you look at certain economies or cities around the world we would like to emulate, Paris is one of them. Besides it being a very romantic city, and everybody wanting to go there, it’s a huge powerhouse in terms of realising the potential of tourism,” enthused Ntshona.
He explained that there are more tourists in Paris than people who live in the city – with the infrastructure around Paris exceeding the needs of locals.
“Think about it: If you start to build things not only for the locals, but also for the entire ecosystem and the people outside, it makes you very attractive from an FDI perspective.”
Quality assurance is another factor that Ntshona believes is essential. “We are in Africa and we come with a certain perception and a certain risk premium. Things can happen in Paris, but they are resilient because of [the strength of the Paris brand].”
Selling South Africa
However, Ntshona believes that South Africa has a uniqueness that can’t be experienced anywhere. The issue is getting “those flavours” out there.
“How we talk about our country becomes important – my view is that it’s not what we talk about, but how we talk about it.”
Yes, our universities are burning, the economy is tight, and Ntshona believes that we must acknowledge these problems, but it is “about how we finish the sentence”.
“Do you finish it with the view that this country is going down? Or: We are a resilient nation, we have had much bigger challenges before – we were on the verge of civil war in the late 80s, early 90s and we overcame that. If we legitimately believe we are mobilised to overcome, it changes things completely.”
SA Tourism could spend a lot of energy on profiling the country as one of the best in the world, but Ntshona is of the view that if one of the 54m South Africans meets a tourist here or overseas and paints our country in a negative way, it negates all of it.
Ntshona also believes strongly in stimulating the domestic tourism sector. “Most tourism economies around the world have a strong foundation of domestic tourism, and on top of that foreign tourism. In our country it’s the other way around. You could attribute that to a couple of things; it could be our history… So we really have to do a considerable amount of work to stimulate that sector.”
While Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban operate as tourist hubs, it is important to remember other areas as well. If South Africans begin to embrace a travelling culture, this could bring prosperity to outlying areas, emphasised Ntshona.
“Tourism is a contact sport. It’s personal, it’s people-friendly, people-hungry. Let’s grow this space and pull as many people [as possible] in.”
This is a shortened version of an article that originally appeared in the 17 November edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here.