South Africa


Lindiwe Sisulu must grasp the nettle and embrace tourism as the ‘new gold’ that can inject fresh life into the economy

The V&A Waterfront in Cape Town. (Photo: Gallo Images / Jacques Stander)

The Covid-19 pandemic effectively called a global ‘time-out’ on tourism and has provided a unique opportunity to put in place measures that could create an optimal travel and tourism enabling environment that would let the nation both see and feel the benefits of achieving a tourism high road in terms of job creation, revenue and tax generation and GDP growth.

Paul Bannister and Michael Spicer are directors of Wesgro, the official tourism, trade and investment promotion agency for Cape Town and the Western Cape. They write in their personal capacities.

Two years ago, President Cyril Ramaphosa described tourism as “Africa’s new gold” insofar that it is the one business sector that has the potential to rapidly provide employment to semi-skilled and unskilled South Africans in both urban and rural areas. Consequently, there was considerable commentary in the social and traditional media regarding the appointment of Lindiwe Sisulu as minister of tourism in the recent Cabinet reshuffle, with many commentators describing it as a “demotion”.

The minister has had a lengthy and varied political career and much of the media coverage has been less than positive, but what if Sisulu was to grasp the opportunity to re-ignite South Africa’s tourism potential and get us back on a growth track that could see 20 million visitors by 2030, and literally provide tens of thousands of jobs while generating valuable revenue in consumer expenditure and taxes?

Minister of Tourism Lindiwe Sisulu. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Tourism has been a major economic driver of the global economy for more than 50 years and in 2019 directly contributed some $2.9-trillion to global GDP ($9.25-trillion in terms of total contribution to global GDP) and generated 10% of global employment in providing more than 280 million jobs.

At that time there appeared to be no limit, with projected employment rising above 11% by 2026 and GDP contribution responding accordingly — but all of this changed in Q1 of 2020 as, slowly but surely, countries closed their borders to all but essential movement and this buoyant sector “fell off a cliff”.

Tourism’s contribution to South Africa’s GDP in 2019 was $5.5-billion. In addition, it supported some 1.5 billion direct and indirect jobs. But the Covid-19 pandemic led to a drop in international visitors of more than 75% in 2020. Combined with periodic alcohol bans, this has forced many hospitality businesses into bankruptcy.

The government of South Africa has struggled for some time to fully embrace the employment and revenue potential of tourism and has not actively, perhaps since the tenure of minister Valli Moosa, managed to truly establish tourism as a regular Cabinet agenda item — as in, “what has your department done to encourage tourism this week?”

In fact, South Africa appears to have almost deliberately gone in the opposite direction with a succession of tourism own goals, such as the unabridged birth certificate debacle, a failure to get the E-visa system working, continued confusion over the role and viability of the national carrier SAA, the licensing of transport tour operators and a failure to address blatant criminality in terms of attacks on tourists and citizens visiting our tourism destinations.

So where should our new minister of tourism start if she wants to get some quick wins on the board?

We would humbly suggest that she follow the lead of her Indian government counterpart and demand a face-to-face meeting with the British prime minister in order to remove South Africa from their dreaded Red List.

We have a lower rate of Covid infections than both the UK and India, plus the Beta (South African) variant is no longer dominant. It is ridiculous that we must remain on the Red List, and imperative that fully vaccinated UK citizens be allowed to visit South Africa since the UK is our number one international inbound market, which delivered close to 440,000 visitors in 2019.

It also bears mentioning that the other four of our top five markets have taken a far more confident view and are permitting fully vaccinated citizens to resume their travels to South Africa for any purpose.

Having reopened the UK, another quick win would be to address the visa situation once and for all in a manner that opens up the entire southern Africa to ease of movement, as travellers who also want to visit Victoria Falls, the Okavango Delta or the Namib Desert do not want to be constrained by geopolitical boundaries.

There has been talk of E-visas for many years. Pilot studies have even been done. Our new tourism minister would become an industry “celebrity” if she could get a new visa regime in place. Home Affairs will obviously need to be engaged and encouraged to facilitate this vital initiative.

And while they are doing this, let’s extend the over-50s visa from three months to six months (those in this age group are traditionally high spenders). Let’s also introduce a special work visa that will encourage “digital nomads” (particularly the influential millennials) to work remotely from South Africa. This would also enhance the nation’s reputation as forward-thinking while harnessing the multiplier spend that the remote workers inevitably generate.

The last of the immediate actions would be to ensure that we have the optimal health protocols in place — this should begin with a fully vaccinated hospitality sector; the minister needs to work with the health department to expedite this.

Once the minister has these wins on the board and Cabinet members are beginning to appreciate the real potential of tourism in helping to solve some of the challenges of unemployment, we can start to address the more complex issues which are required to create an enabling environment within which the tourism sector would be able to thrive.

For the government to create this enabling environment, the following issues need to be addressed:

  • Air access: The new minister should, working with the transport department, look no further than Wesgro’s Air Access initiative and roll it out nationally. This programme has demonstrated the direct correlation between “airlift” and an increase in international inbound tourists and trade routes for global markets into the African continent but, as in life, air access needs an operating budget.
  • Safety and security: Other than the abovementioned Red List, this is the biggest deterrent to travel to South Africa. The tourism minister needs to lobby the government to let policing become a provincial competence so that provinces and their respective metros can have access to the necessary resources to overcome the lawlessness and criminality that is now spreading exponentially.
  • Measurement and intelligence: South Africa has traditionally used the international definition of tourists as being “overnight visitors”, but this definition includes cross-border shopping and health and family visits, which arguably artificially inflates the number of “international tourists” from neighbouring countries. Although this definition is a global norm in terms of GDP contribution, job creation and the prevention of the challenges of “over-tourism” (e.g. Venice), there is a strong argument for focusing on “air arrivals”. There is also a need to be able to globally benchmark our performance, and in this regard it is suggested that we consider using the World Economic Forum’s travel and tourism metrics (the WEF index consists of 140 countries and 90 competitiveness factors divided into four clusters — in the 2017 index, South Africa rated 53rd; in 2015 the country was 48th; in 2019 we had slumped to 61st).
  • Inter-city travel. South Africa needs to rebuild its failing public transport network, starting with the railways. There are strong arguments for the privatisation of the railway operations with the national provider managing and maintaining the infrastructure. The departments of transport and public enterprise will need persuading, but South Africa urgently requires a national public transport system that is efficient, reliable and affordable for both visitors and our own citizens, particularly if we want to promote domestic tourism.
  • Environmental protection: This underlying element is fundamental to an eco-driven tourism destination like South Africa. Poaching of animals and marine life has to be eliminated, littering has to be stopped, erosion curtailed and reversed, water courses kept pristine and a total commitment to sustainable and renewable energy made.

Having established some sterling tourism credentials, the new tourism minister could look to make a greater global impact by lobbying the WTO to facilitate a major global tourism reset as it is unlikely that individual countries will be able to break back into growth with so many different health and visa protocols in place, and the historic imbalances of landing slots and the power of global carriers.

Given the dramatic fall in international flights, the concept of “freedoms of the air”, which go back to the Chicago Convention of 1944, would appear to need revisiting. Given the critical role of global aviation in the promotion of tourism, is it not time to facilitate a global opening of the skies in order to maximise air access?

One of the few positive elements to emerge from the Covid lockdown has been the opportunity to reflect upon broader societal issues such as the natural environment and phenomena such as climate change. The minister could encourage the entire tourism value chain to work together to agree, and then to effectively implement an environmental best-practice protocol, plus an environmental offset scheme, to try to reduce the carbon footprint of global tourism. Perhaps our new tourism minister could become one of the champions for the protection and, where possible, the replanting of the world’s vital temperate and equatorial forests?

Despite relative success over the past few years, South Africa has not realised its tourism potential and has arguably regressed from a competitive destination viewpoint. The pandemic effectively called a global time-out, providing a unique opportunity to put in place the measures to create an optimal travel and tourism enabling environment that would let the nation both see and feel the benefits of taking a tourism high road in terms of job creation, revenue and tax generation and GDP growth.

The proposed merger of Brand South Africa’s reputation management responsibilities with those of SA Tourism’s destination marketing is a positive start. If the new tourism minister were to build on this and act now, this would not only create the platform upon which to deliver on the president’s reference to the “new gold”, but would also show the tourism minister, and indeed the tourism ministry, in a very different light.

Carpe Diem! DM

Footnote: Extract from the latest Travel and Tourism (T&T) Report (2019):

“South Africa has, by far, the largest T&T industry in Sub-Saharan Africa ranking second regionally and 61st globally on the WEF Competitiveness Index. 

“The country’s most significant advantage is its 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). Nevertheless, the country still fell eight places on the index since 2017. 

“South Africa has several critical issues undermining its overall competitiveness. 

“It has one of the worst safety and security environments (132nd) in the world, and is plagued by high homicide rates (135th), a significant impact of crime on business (131st) and increasing fears of terrorism. 

“Combined with poor health and hygiene conditions (113th), the security situation diminishes South Africa’s attractiveness for visitors and investors alike. 

“In addition, the country still scores low on the Environmental Sustainability pillar (124th), which is characterised by significant deforestation (124th) and declining environmental enforcement and regulatory stringency (46th to 66th), posing a risk to South Africa’s natural resource advantage.

“The country also experienced declines in the attractiveness of its natural assets (6th to 32nd). 

“However, an increased number of World Heritage Sites (16th to 13th) and an upward revision for protected land (100th to 74th), helps offset this. 

“The real fall in the nation’s TTCI ranking is largely due to a worsening business environment, where the nation dropped 36 places because of a deterioration in performance on legal system and market competition (30th to 54th) and the impact of taxes on incentives to work and invest (48th to 78th). 

“Government prioritisation of tourism has also slipped, from 40th to 75th, with an apparent reduction in both marketing effectiveness (40th to 60th) and overall country brand strategy (5th to 23rd). 

“Combined with declining quality of tourist service infrastructure (6th to 32nd), South Africa is in danger of further erosion of its advantages. 

“The nation’s traditional lead on human resources also narrowed, with refined education data showing a lower level of primary education enrolment and broad drops in training and customer orientation metrics.” 


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  • This article contains a lot of sense and truth by Paul Bannister and Michael Spicer, but unfortunately very little will happen with a government as inert as ours is.

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