Sisa Ntshona: Tourism creates 1 in 5 jobs - SA can't afford not to be competitive

Competitiveness has become a key word or concept when looking at business strategy and the ability to compete in a sector. This concept equally impacts on the global tourism sector since we collectively compete for share of attention, voice and ultimately spend of potential tourists – both domestically and internationally.

Understanding what motivates individuals to travel to certain destinations has inspired the study of tourism competitiveness. The biennial World Economic Forum’s Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index (WEF TTCI) is one tool that serves to help us understand travel choices and the strategies that will influence these choices positively.

It is important to articulate why countries compete for the share of the global tourism market. The World Bank in its report “Tourism in Africa: Harnessing Tourism for Growth and Improved Livelihoods,” describes tourism’s main comparative advantage over other sectors is that there is a ‘flow-through’ or ‘catalytic effect across the economy in terms of production and employment creation’. This means that the sector is able to create jobs and development at every stage bringing with it an improvement in GDP, living standards and ultimately a country’s ability to meet its social contract with its people.

Significantly, the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) recognises that travel and tourism has created one in every five new jobs in 2017, outperforming traditional sectors like manufacturing, agriculture, retail and wholesale, forestry and fisheries and financial services.

Against this background we must begin to deeply interrogate South Africa’s competitiveness as a tourism destination.

South Africa ranked 61 of 140 countries in the 2019 WEF TTCI and we have managed to hold our position in the index, performing ahead of our African peers in previous years. According to the World Economic Forum, we currently account for “approximately 70% of Southern Africa’s T&T [travel and tourism] GDP and is the subregion’s highest scorer on the TTCI.”

South Africa’s performance in the WEF TTCI, however, comes amidst the background of an Africa that is rising and taking its place among the global community of nations. To this end, Mauritius outranked us in the 2019 Index. Although this has implications for South Africa and its national objectives, we equally celebrate the fact that the continent as a whole is becoming more competitive as a tourism destination. According to the WEF TTCI the region continues to outpace the global average in international tourism arrives and anticipates that “African economies covered by this year’s TTCI to have the second highest rate of growth in T&T GDP in the ten years from 2019–2029.”

Importantly, various studies looking at tourism competitiveness indicate overwhelmingly that there is no single determining factor of tourism attraction, rather a range of factors influence tourism competitiveness.

In terms of South Africa’s tourism brand, the WEF TTCI observes that the country has ”the largest T&T industry in Sub-Saharan Africa ranking second regionally and 61st globally on the index.” According to the Index, our significant advantages relate to a “combination of natural (15th) and cultural resources (23rd). While not optimal, the country also boasts a decent business environment (57th) and beats regional benchmarks regarding human resources and labour (81st), ICT readiness (75th) and overall infrastructure (60th).

What's holding us back

Tourism has - and continues to - contribute positively to South Africa’s economic targets and while the sector is strong, we are aware we have a few challenges that will impact negatively on our tourism brand going forward if not firmly arrested.

This is also recognised by the WEF TTCI which says that “South Africa has several critical issues undermining its overall competitiveness,” including one of the worst safety and security environments (132nd), high homicide rates (135th), a significant impact of crime on business (131st), increasing fears of terrorism and poor health and hygiene conditions (113th). This “diminishes South Africa’s attractiveness for visitors and investors alike.” We also score lowly on the Environmental Sustainability pillar (124th), which is characterized by significant deforestation (124th) and declining environmental enforcement and regulatory stringency (46th to 66th), posing a risk to South Africa’s natural resource advantage.

We can see without any doubt that many of our national issues are increasingly affecting our international profile and positive reputation. Tourism is one of six elements of a country’s nation brand according to Simon Anholt and refers to the level of interest in visiting a country. This sector provides the most tangible face, and experience, of a country.

In light of the challenges highlighted above by the WEF TTCI, we should be concerned about South Africa’s developing country image and its implications for our national priorities. Tourism is one of the country’s strongest performing sectors. And yet, our own behaviours, attitudes and actions are now threatening our ability to attract tourists – domestic and international – with all the resulting benefits.

No amount of public relations is able to dispel these perceptions unless we begin to act, and do things, differently as citizens of the country at all levels including policy formulation and implementation. Benjamin Franklin said, “It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.”

South Africa has worked very hard to recover from the challenges of its past. We have become a beacon in the international community and has inspired the global community. Our recent performance in the WEF TCCI should serve as a wakeup call – not just in terms of our tourism brand but more broadly, in terms of our overall nation brand image. We have this opportunity to do the right things to recover. Let us not miss the opportunity.

Sisa Ntshona is CEO of South African Tourism. Views expressed are his own. 

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