During President Cyril Ramaphosa’s inaugural State of the Nation Address, the tourism sector, and all those who are passionate about its enormous economic potential, breathed a collective sigh of relief.
That evening, following a roller-coaster week that changed the South African political landscape for the better, the president singled out tourism as a key contributor to growth and job creation, committing to doubling the 700,000 jobs currently supported by the sector.
For the last two years, facing political uncertainty and damaging regulations, this is precisely what those of us who understood the benefits of tourism have been wanting to hear.
Tourism is not dependent on Moodys ratings, or even a weakened local economy. It is stimulated by the human desire to explore and experience other places in the world, and of course, the relative cost of having these experiences.
In almost every way, the South African tourism offer is world-class. From friendly people, world-renowned hotels and breathtaking beauty, to our globally competitive pricing, we have the potential to dominate world tourism.
But we haven’t nearly reached our full potential, and this is due not least because tourism, as an economic driver in its own right, has not been fully appreciated by all stakeholders in national government.
Tourism can significantly boost inclusive growth and job creation if it is given the opportunity to do so.
One doesn’t have to look further than Greece for proof. While the country’s economy was contracting by more than 20% (from around 2009), its tourism sector provided a much-needed boost. The more than 30 million tourists who visited the country in 2017 helped boost employment by 6%, especially among young citizens.
With the country’s unemployment rate still over 20%, rising to as much as 40% for young Greeks, the estimated 1 million jobs supported by its tourism sector is a valuable lifeline which continues to make a tangible difference.
Here at home, in the Western Cape, tourism has been singled out in the provincial economic growth strategy, Project Khulisa, as a vital economic stimulant. As a result of this focus, tourism in the Cape has helped create an additional 26,000 jobs since 2014, with the sector now supporting more than 300,000 direct, indirect and induced jobs in the province.
Indeed, with its high potential for inclusive growth, and its ability to support small and medium businesses, as well as bigger businesses, tourism has proven to be a job-creator of note worldwide.
But sadly it has not been able to reach its full potential in South Africa, despite its competitive advantages. And this, sadly, has been due to bad policies and a failure to grasp this industry’s importance.
This was particularly evident by some of the greatly damaging policies being implemented by the Department of Home Affairs, including the very serious own goal – the implementation of the new visa regulations.
If the Ramaphosa administration is serious about turning tourism into a job-creation machine, then he will need to diverge from this path, and quickly.
The SONA was promising in this regard. The president demonstrated a much more astute understanding of the tourism economy, and it is a welcome first step in building up the tourism sector as a key pillar of our economy.
The second, much more difficult step, will have to follow soon after, however, if this change is to be followed through. Indeed, it is much easier to promote a beautiful country than it is to remove obstacles that stand in the way of the sector’s growth.
The Ramaphosa administration has a small window to make the latter possible, and if they get it right, they will easily enable the industry to reach its full potential.
The scrapping of onerous visa regulations
At the top of his list must be the scrapping of the strict visa regulations that still make it extremely onerous for visitors to legally travel to South Africa, including the requirement that unabridged birth certificates are carried for children.
It is completely possible to balance safety and security considerations with providing easy access to visitors who want to travel in your country. Many places around the world do this, including those with far greater security threats, premised on the understanding that tourism is a key sector that should be supported because of its economic benefits.
Another positive step towards transforming the visa regime would be to extend the 90-day maximum visa for tourists. If a visitor wants to spend money in South Africa for longer than three months, or wealthy northerners want to spend their winters in South Africa, then we should be openly encouraging it. One possibility would be to extend this to six months, a quick win that could make a major impact on our economy.
Univisa and e-visa
This could be complemented with a univisa that would allow visitors to the southern Africa region to visit countries freely. This will make the overall tourism offer more appealing, and less burdensome.
E-visas will also greatly assist in facilitating increasing number of visitors. Decreasing number of visitors from China, one of the world’s largest traveller source markets, has largely been due to the requirement that visas be applied for at embassies or consulates. With a country the size of China, this ill-conceived decision has made it not only unattractive to travel to South Africa, but almost impossible.
This is just one example of the detrimental impact of these regulations – there are many more. If E-visas and visas on arrival are introduced, this can quickly be undone, as South Africa becomes a hassle-free choice that will be easier to access and enjoy.
Home Affairs has some proposals that partially address these issues, but they are bureaucratic and process driven and have multi-year timelines. Home Affairs complains that they lack funds for this to happen, but if tourism is a national growth priority, then treasury and home affairs must arrange priority resources.
Connecting destinations of choice to other parts of the world
Once it is easier to access South Africa legally, tourists must be able to get to their destination of choice as quickly as possible. South Africa is a long-haul destination, and this is easier said than done. For the hundreds of thousands of international tourists who travel to our country each year, careful planning is undertaken with a commitment to spend money to reach this “once-in-a-lifetime” destination.
We should not make it more difficult than it needs to be and this requires connecting Cape Town directly to the rest of the world.
The Mother City is the jewel in the South African tourism crown, with travellers starting their South African adventure in the city, and then travelling to other places in the country. Cape Town is often the desired entry point, and we must treat it this way.
Cape Town Air Access, a partnership between Wesgro, the City of Cape Town, the Western Cape Government, Airports Company South Africa, Cape Town Tourism, South African Tourism and the private sector, has played a key role in facilitating more routes into Cape Town and this has helped relieve the situation. Since its inception in July 2015, some 1.5 million two-way seats have been added, with the initiative helping land 13 new routes and 15 route expansions during this time.
But more can be done. A key intervention to boost accessibility would be for the Department of Transport to align itself closely with the work and objectives of the Department of Tourism. Indeed, this department has a role to play in boosting tourism because the bilateral air agreements they facilitate determine how many flights will be allowed between the two countries.
As it stands, some expansion of routes will not be possible because bilateral agreements have reached capacity. This directly results in fewer opportunities to travel to our destination and needs to be reviewed as soon as possible.
There has been some progress made recently with the signing of a single African Aviation Transport Market, but more can be done. An urgent full analysis needs to be completed of existing bilateral agreements with other key source markets and, where possible, they should be changed, and soon. Once again priority growth opportunities must be provided priority resourcing, attention and action.
Undoing the damage done by the drought by getting the message out that South Africa and Cape Town/Western Cape are open for business
In an unpredictable world, unforeseen shocks need rapid responses so that the destination brand remains strong. The Cape’s worst drought in living memory provides a real threat to this brand as negative images of empty dams and locals queuing for water get beamed to television screens around the world.
Wesgro, the tourism industry’s JAMMS partnership and South African Tourism have led the way in trying to stop the bleeding, by trying to get the message out that Cape Town and the Western Cape are open for business. Through digital campaigns, aligned messaging and communication with international journalists, the first steps towards making this happen have been taken. But we need all hands on deck and the highest office in the land can prove to be of great value.
A significant international campaign to undo the negative impact of the drought on the tourism sector is needed now more than ever.
The tourism sector will look to the administration for the leadership needed to make this happen. Already, the exceptional work by South African Tourism’s CEO, Sisa Ntshona, has shown that collaboration between different levels of government is possible and effective. The Presidency must come to the fore and assist in getting this message out.
An obvious mechanism would be to make tourism and investment promotion a part of President Ramaphosa’s recently announced international investment campaign.
The drought will not be the last such brand-shock our destination experiences. Be it health concerns over listeriosis or Ebola, or negative political commentary that is reported on abroad, we need to have the muscle-memory to respond, and quickly.
Making it easier to create jobs where they are needed most
One of the most important aspects of tourism is that it can directly benefit hundreds of thousands of poorer South Africans. It is an industry with the fastest growth prospects, with specific advantages for SMMEs and for empowerment of previously disadvantaged South Africans in both urban and rural communities.
For this to happen, however, it must be made easier for the “small guy” to enter the sector and supporting her when she does so. Like with any small business, cutting the red tape and providing microfinancing will be critical. The Western Cape’s Red Tape Reduction programme is a case study in how a co-ordinated government effort can improve the ease of doing business.
From the informal trader who sells goods to a visitor, to the local tour guide with intimate knowledge of her community, supporting the creation of small businesses that can offer key tourism services will go a long way in stimulating inclusive economic growth.
This sort of intervention is especially needed in South Africa’s poorer communities. More focus must therefore be placed on developing a township tourism product that is authentic yet meets the required standards of international tourists. This can be aided by investment into quality tourism infrastructure and safety in these communities, and by providing financial support to small businesses that can offer such services.
To make this happen, “silos” in government need to be removed. Every government department should recognise that they have a role in helping create jobs, and they must consider their policy decisions through this prism. The Ramaphosa administration must force this interaction at a Cabinet level, so that all of government, be it home affairs or police, recognise that they have a role to play in creating an environment that helps create tourism jobs.
Creating a safe destination for both residents and visitors
Creating safe communities in South Africa should be a top concern for President Ramaphosa’s administration, given the detrimental effect that crime has on the lives of millions of people across our country.
From a tourism perspective, it is equally damaging to our ability to maximise our tourism offer to travellers from around the world. On almost every measure, our country is compelling for a prospective visitor. But concerns over safety continue to present a hurdle, and may limit the high levels of growth possible.
In the Western Cape, a joint-up approach has been adopted through the Department of Economic Development and Tourism’s Tourism Safety and Security Unit. This team provides proactive awareness programmes and responds quickly to incidents that have involved a tourist – so that they receive the support needed. This response helps build a caring brand for the destination, which otherwise could have been severely damaged.
Other strategic interventions also allow for tourist-focused syndicates to be disrupted. For example, as was announced by Minister Alan Winde in his budget speech this year, the provision of 15 security guards to ATMs in the CBD during the December peak season prevented 17 attempts at ATM fraud taking place, almost reducing the number to zero.
This joined-up approach should be replicated by national government too. The crime-fighting capacity sits with national government, and better crime intelligence, more visible policing, closer co-operation with provincial and local governments, and smart campaigns that create awareness for visitors to our country will help reduce such incidents.
Part of this national tourism safety programme should be to help more communities benefit from tourism, with proper safety infrastructure put in place to support this. This will not only incentivise tourists to travel beyond the tourist hot-spots, but will also help create jobs in these poorer communities.
With Tourism Indaba fast approaching, and the World Travel Market Africa taking place this week, there is no better time to ask ourselves what should be actioned now so that tourism can become our top job-creating engine in the future.
The Ramaphosa administration will need to be committed to removing the hurdles that stand in the way of its growth, and to inculcate an understanding across his government that tourism is everyone’s business and that every department should be looking at their portfolios through the prism of “how can I help create jobs?”
The role of his government must be to create an environment that is conducive to tourism growth.
There is simply no reason why we can’t double the number of tourism jobs in South Africa. In fact, we should be aiming higher, setting our sights on being one of the top 20 tourism destinations in the world, creating millions of jobs.
President Ramaphosa has an excellent Minister of Tourism to help him achieve this – but it will not be easy, and it will require immediate, decisive action to become a reality.
In the long term, he will also need to focus on building an environment where high tourism growth is sustainable. Perhaps now is the time to consider calling a special tourism indaba that includes business, civil society, and government, where innovative ideas for growth in the sector can be discussed and debated. There is no better time than now.
In working towards these goals, he will have the support of many of us who care about South Africa and tourism. We are ready and waiting to lend a hand in building the job-creating machine tourism can be for our country. DM
Michael Spicer is Deputy Chair of Wesgro’s Board. Paul Bannister is a member of Wesgro’s Board, Wesgro Cape Town and the Western Cape’s Official Tourism, Trade and Investment Promotion Agency
"Man is by nature a political animal" ~ Aristotle