Picture: Wikimedia Commons

By Unathi Sonwabile Henama

Tourism is a growing sector in many African economies. The sector is highly competitive and Western countries continue to dominate trade in tourism, whilst Africa receives less than 10% of global tourism receipts.

The largest travel exhibition in Africa, Africa Tourism Indaba started on the 8 May 2018 at the ICC in Durban. It provides a meeting space for travel buyers and product owners to sell destination Africa.

Given political will and political support, tourism can succeed in a country. Durban is a model city. The 100% political support it received ensures that tourism succeeds in driving the economy of the city.

Durban undertook an in-depth analysis of its tourism performance, to identify weaknesses, and to mitigate the decline in tourism. Durban learnt from this exercise, by reflecting on the successes and failures of its tourism plans.

Analysis of tourism red tape

As we attend the Indaba, there must be an analysis of tourism red tape. International tourism in SA has grown above 12%, whilst the decline in domestic tourism, reflect on a poor economy.

South Africa will need more international tourists to mitigate the decline of domestic tourism. The celebrated 12% growth of international tourism remains an underachievement when one analyses the potential of South Africa.

The country has the potential to achieve 50% year-on-year growth if tourism red tape is addressed. Tourism red tape includes visa regulations and airlift and air access to South Africa. The vision of the National Tourism Sector Strategy (NTSS) was that South Africa must be a Top 20 tourism destination by the year 2020. The NTSS was an inclusive contract between the state and the tourism industry for growth.

5 Million tourists in 5 years

In 2017, the language at the Indaba was different. The NTSS was declared an amnesia item, and the term “5 in 5” was the new rhetoric. This implied that South Africa should seek 5 million more tourists in 5 years.

It is  important to identify the visa regulations and airlift and air access as the stumbling blocks limiting tourism and the attainment of the NTSS vision. The attention of the tourism industry has been squarely on the visa regulations, which shall be finalised soon. The resolution of the visa regulations is a foregone conclusion, but the tourism trade had failed to raise the equally important issues of airlift and air access.

The Department of Transport is the new turf ground, where the tourism industry must lead the process of persuasion and diplomacy for open skies. The democratic state must test open-skies just like it persuaded South Africans to try out the e-tolls.

Open skies, competition & lower prices

Open skies mean greater frequency, more competition, and lower prices, which will benefit both tourists and citizens. As South Africa experiences a decline in mining, manufacturing and agricultural production, tourism is emerging as a reliable economic messiah.

Tourism has been acknowledged as the new gold, and if it is the new gold, tourism must be assisted to succeed driving South Africa’s economy.

The structural challenges of unemployment, poverty, inequality, and pedestrian economic growth are too pressing for us to ignore the untapped potential of the tourism industry in SA. The South African tragedy is that poverty coexists with wealth and opulence, to an extent that poverty is normalised, and we have become oblivious to its existence.

It means we may be contributors to the spread of poverty, through our unconscious actions. The aviation committees at the Department of Transportation have unfairly targeted Comair, one of the most successful companies in the tourism industry. These unfortunate actions must be raised by the travel trade at Africa’s Tourism Indaba, to ensure that the Minister of Transport Minister Blade Nzimande is made aware of the unfortunate conduct of officials within his Department that threaten the attainment of tourism growth as detailed by President Ramaphosa during SONA.

Tourism needs a supporting public service

Tourism more than any other sector needs a supporting public service in order to succeed. The World Economic Forum Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Index Ranking, ranked SA 53rd, 5 points below its ranking in 2015. SA lags its BRICS partners, China (15th), Brazil (27th), India (40) and Russia (43rd). Mauritius is ranked 55th, and this small island country is two places below South Africa.

Considering that South Africa has a far superior tourism than Mauritius, these rankings should be sobering for the country as a destination. South Africa can improve its ranking to be in the Top 20 destinations by the year 2020, if the spirit of collaboration succeeds to reducing red tape limiting tourism growth.

Before that is achieved, the economic race to tourism growth must be confronted within the state apparatus. Maybe let’s learn from Durban by facing the demons that limit tourism growth in SA, located within the Department of Transportation. It won’t be an easy conversation, but it’s a conversation that is long overdue.

Unathi Sonwabile Henama teaches tourism at the Tshwane University of Technology and writes in his personal capacity