Delegates at the 2018 Stellenbosch Business Tourism Indaba came from all over the country and from as far afield as Zimbabwe, the United Kingdom and Denmark.
While the main theme of the Indaba was "business tourism", which has the MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, and Events) basket of sub-sectors at its core, business tourism is an important feeder into the mainstream tourism/ holiday sector, and Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom was correct in pointing this out.
Many investments and other forms of lucrative partnerships have also occurred after people first came to South Africa as business tourists, and discovered the many opportunities that lie in the country and its people.
Local and foreign visitors attending events, conferences, meetings, etc. where they do not usually reside end up spending money in the local hospitality facilities, thus contributing to the economy where they are visiting.
This, by extension, feeds into the national economy. Everything is linked in this way.
SA was an easy sell
Now, there was a time when the newly liberated South Africa was an object of much fascination in the rest of the African continent and around the world. It was the flavour of the moment.
As a new democratic player on the block, and with former president Nelson Mandela at its helm – especially because of everything he represented – the country easily drew music stars; political leaders; sports stars; movie stars; models; businesspeople; investors; discerning, high-dollar tourists; meetings and conferences; as well as all forms of fortune seekers to its shores. Many famous visitors knew what strings to pull to get a photo opportunity with President Mandela, as a highlight of their stay.
For his part, Mandela was smart enough to get something out of his admirers; not for himself, but for the country. He used his famous charm to convince wealthy visitors to play their part by investing in South Africa’s development project. Virgin Active’s Richard Bronson was one such investor. Mandela famously played a big role in getting him to bring his Virgin Active gyms into the country.
Those days were good. South Africa was an easy sell; in fact, it almost sold itself.
Destination image and the competitive environment
In more recent years, South Africa's shining reputation took a knock because of, among other things, bad political leadership. Other countries in the region, meanwhile, have seen this opportunity and jumped at it.
These days, it is hard to talk about conference destinations in Africa without mentioning impressive venue developments and easier visa processes in countries like Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, and others. While South Africa still dominates this sector, its grip on market leadership is gradually slipping and no longer unquestionable.
South Africa still has the skills, no doubt, and levels of new product and service development are quite impressive. Through Innovus, for instance, its industry interaction and innovation company, the University of Stellenbosch plays a crucial role in enabling technology transfer into real 'products of the future' for the industry.
More of this is needed around the country, with government and private sector support, to ensure that South Africa stays at the front of the innovation queue and positions itself as the 'go-to' country in terms of new product and service development.
Only this way can our country be best positioned to apply artificial intelligence to integrate the fourth industrial revolution in this sector, fully aware of the 'economic disruptors' that increasingly constitute the 'new normal' of our times.
Destination reputation still matters
But, even with all of the above, South Africa will struggle to remain and maintain its pole leadership position if its country reputation continues to be pummelled by endless negative news that feeds into fear – real or perceived – of rampant corruption that gets rewarded instead of being punished, economic and political policy uncertainty, violence, xenophobia, feared insecurity when it comes to private property ownership, etc.
More has to be done by government to counter the negative tide of negative news, as its silent impact is real and will be felt only when it’ll be too late after businesses would have silently shut down, people lost their livelihood, and crucial skills left the country, leaving a massively eroded tax base and a threat of social unrest behind.
Increasingly, there is little shortage of alternative destinations on the continent for business tourism. None of it is due to us, and reduced numbers will come here if perceptions are not countered with real, credible action to grow our destination appeal in a world where competition is rife.
Big brother won't be fooled
South Africa needs all the goodwill it can generate, and the dynamic tourism industry in the country cannot, on its own, grow the pie without the knowledge that its international marketing campaigns are supported by positive messages emanating from government. The negative, often racist, political rhetoric also has to be tampered by clear government messaging that has the interests of country, not political parties, at heart.
Big brother is all over the digital space – the world cannot be fooled.
A stable and growing tourism sector stands to contribute massively to economic growth and, eventually, political stability in the country.
Following the intense state capture years, it is time to tone down unhelpful political expediency in favour of building for the future. Otherwise, the business we seek will be running to Rwanda and other African countries – which all have a huge appetite and space for it – and leave us wondering how it all came to be.
* Solly Moeng is brand reputation management adviser and CEO of strategic corporate communications consultancy DonValley Reputation Managers. Views expressed are his own.
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