Release Date: 24 August, 2021

Fostering Tourism’s Covid-19 Recovery and Launching the Sector on a Sustainable Growth Trajectory

South Africa’s tourism industry is in crisis.  Figures from 2020 show that the volume of tourists decreased by 72.6%, and some 300 000 jobs have been lost since hard lockdown last year. Many small businesses reliant on local and international travellers did not survive the first lockdown in 2020.

What needs to be done to grow the sector and bolster its resilience going forward? To seek answers Wits Business School (WBS) in partnership with the Tourism Business Council of South Africa (TBCSA), hosted another leadership dialogue which drew together some of the country’s leading experts in travel, tourism and hospitality.

Guest speaker, Deputy Minister of Tourism Mr Fish Mahlalela, emphasised that tourism is a key driver for economic recovery in South Africa, and drew attention to the importance of ‘non-pharmaceutical interventions’ to feed government’s Tourism Recovery Plan.  

“If we are to move towards a more sustainable, inclusive, and resilient tourism sector, we need to amplify the message about our safety norms and standards in the tourism sector, encourage compliance, and ensure enforcement. But most critical, we have to ensure that we accelerate the vaccination rollout so that we can create the necessary confidence and trust in anyone who wants to explore our beautiful country,” he said.

Mr Septi Bukula, moderator of the discussion and founder of Seeza, a collaborative network of tourism SMEs, noted that from 2013 to 2019, South Africa was on a steady upward trajectory in terms of the growth of the number of tourists, but that our place in the World Economic Forum (WEF) Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index told a different story, oscillating between number 66 in 2011 to number 48 in 2015 to number 61 in 2019, out of 140 countries. 

Panellist Ms Sthembiso Dlamini, Acting CEO of South African Tourism, noted that apart from issues of xenophobia and crime, one of the reasons for the dips in our rankings over the years is that South Africa is a long-haul destination and the cost of flights and airlift connectivity were off-putting for many would-be travellers.

“We therefore need to ask ourselves: how do we create demand? How do we market ‘Destination South Africa’? A lot of people know South Africa for its iconic offerings. SA Tourism believes that we have much more to offer as a destination, and we now have an opportunity to change our narrative and the way we project ourselves to the international world,” she said.

This, she says, includes looking at different segments within the market (such as youth travel) and diversifying our portfolio to include special interest groups, such as golfers and birdwatchers. Travellers from the rest of Africa is another market that she believes needs to be explored.

“We can’t control pandemics, they will come and go, but we can control ways in which we grow our domestic market so that we can sustain the industry in times of crisis.”

Mr Tshifhiwa Tshivhengwa, CEO of TBCSA added that South Africa is also increasingly competing with other African countries, notably Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda, who have similar offerings as South Africa, which has also negatively impacted our international competitiveness. Because we have focused for too long on our traditional destinations, such as the Kruger National Park and Cape Town, we have neglected to develop the rest of the country, even for domestic tourism, he said.

“We have not spent enough time focusing on developing both tourism products and tourism entrepreneurs. Can we point at small tourism businesses that have grown into big business since the end of apartheid? Can we be proud of the numbers? I doubt it. The growth has been geared into one direction, instead of being developmental.”

Mr Blacky Komani, chairman of TBCSA, agreed, saying that Covid has been a wake-up call. “On the supply side we are stuck in the mindset of certain kinds of products that appeal to a certain kind of market, and therefore there’s no growth. There are other source markets that we have been ignoring that are much more resilient than our so-called core source market.  Covid has shown us that depending on core source markets is not sustainable.

“In terms of resilience, it has been shown again and again that successful travel markets start with a strong domestic market,” he noted. “Unfortunately there is no quick solution as the Department of Tourism depends on other government departments, such as security and health.  We are vulnerable, but we have been given a once in a lifetime chance to build a solid base on which to build the future of our tourism.”

Fostering a culture of travel will go a long way towards ensuring sustainability in the tourism industry, and key to building a strong domestic market, said Dlamini. The issue is accessibility, from both a pricing and messaging point of view.

“When it comes to access to information, we need to make sure we are marketing effectively to the right target audience, including communicating in their language, making it accessible and not elitist. We cannot carry on assuming that everyone understands travel.”

Pricing is definitely a barrier for many domestic travellers, but for Tshivhengwa, it goes back to how we have conceptualised travel in South Africa. “People aspire to travel to certain famous destinations, like the V&A Waterfront for instance, but these are not necessarily accessible from an affordability point of view. We need to build an interest in visiting places closer to home and also a sense of trust in smaller establishments, such as B&Bs and guesthouses.” He added that fostering a culture of travel should start at school, with field trips that include destinations off the beaten track.

Deputy Minister Mahlalela noted, in closing, that the perception ‘on the ground’ is that tourism is for foreigners coming to South Africa, not for South Africans travelling around their own country.

“This is linked to the way we have conceptualised tourism for years. When we begin to recover as a country after Covid, we need to reimagine tourism so that it does not depend on the international market as the pillar, but uses the domestic and regional markets as pillars. This will require integrated planning at government level because tourism is dependent upon other departments for, for example, infrastructure upgrades.

“In reimagining tourism in South Africa, we also need to ask: how do we make sure that we integrate tourism among all nine provinces so that we sell South Africa holistically? We need to tap into other niche markets to grow the sector: education and gastronomy, for example, are big opportunities. And we need to look at policies around school holidays and public holidays. All these things will have to be looked at very carefully if we are to create sufficient resilience for the sector to sustain itself.”

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