Tour de Flop? Africa’s Travel Indaba was a ‘missed opportunity for the industry’

Tour de Flop? Africa’s Travel Indaba was a ‘missed opportunity for the industry’
A woman at prayers on a Durban beach. South African Tourism seems confident that prayer will not be needed for good business to emerge from the Africa's Travel Indaba 2022. (Photo: Angus Begg)

The recent indaba has shone the spotlight on some of the challenges faced by the tourism industry in 2022.

‘There was some serious business done with the pent-up travel demand,” says Marco Schiess, the owner of Umlani, a rustic luxury safari camp in Timbavati, speaking about last week’s Africa’s Travel Indaba in Durban, his 23rd attendance of the annual event. “A bit of both prospective and actual business. I heard more than one exhibitor say it was their best Indaba yet.”

Schiess was not the only one to feel gung ho about the indaba. The chief convention bureau officer at South African Tourism (SAT), Amanda Kotze-Nhlapo, was quoted in the regional industry publication, Tourism Update, as being very upbeat. “Now that stakeholders in the African tourism sector have seen what we can do, we can only grow from here.”

Marking her 11th attendance at the indaba, but for the first time as regional director of sales and marketing for Minor Hotels – a new entrant to the South African market – Lindi Mthethwa echoes Schiess and Kotze-Nhlapo, noting that, “returning from two years of lockdown, buyers and exhibitors were very eager to do business and make the show a success”.

The warm and fuzzy face of tourism

Many attendees stressed the importance of personal contact with clients and of the negative impact the Covid lockdown has had on tourism in Africa.  

The CEO of Tourvest Destination Management, Martin Wiest, says the indaba was “psychologically an enormously important show”, the start of what he calls a return to normality.

Mpho Mbuli, the new marketing general manager at Tourism KwaZulu-Natal, during an Africa’s Travel Indaba meeting in Tourism KZN’s ‘meetings booth’. (Photo: Angus Begg)

A numbers game

The industry traditionally measures the trade show’s success and growth in terms of the number of buyers of mostly South African products, which read roughly as accommodation, experiences and holidays, and on this score the acting CEO of SAT, Themba Khumalo, told Tourism Update that, “since Covid-19, we have started from zero and we benchmark that success from zero”, noting that a total of 480 international buyers and 505 local buyers had attended the event.

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“Trade shows depend on volume,” says Wiest, “and there weren’t enough international buyers.” But he says that, with the short notice, owing to the frequently changing Covid travel requirements in both South Africa and its source markets, he didn’t expect more.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch

Some industry voices are less forgiving, like that of David Frost, CEO of the Southern African Tourism Services Association.

Though he says he recognises the seminal importance of the indaba, he described this year’s event as “lacklustre”, comparing it with the smaller World Travel Market Africa, the private sector-run industry exhibition held at the Cape Town International Convention Centre in April. “It was infinitely better. There was a better atmosphere, a more vibrant buzz about it.”  

Frost puts the blame for this squarely at the door of the government.

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“Government’s refusal to embrace the private sector as a proper partner has impacted negatively on the industry. We hear parroting about [public-private] partnerships by SAT and the Department of Tourism, but this all remains in the realm of rhetoric.”

So, who didn’t attend and why?

Classic Portfolio, which represents a collection of independent lodges and camps in Africa, has been one of the staple Travel Indaba exhibitors for more than 25 years. Owner Suzanne Bayly says that, “due to the sheer lack of organisation from SAT”, they had to withdraw their attendance.

“For the last few years we have had the biggest stand at Indaba, and were planning to do the same this year.” Bayly says that, with 24 sharing partners spread across 10 countries participating on a stand that would have been more than 200m², they required at least four months of planning before the show. “We reached out to the show organisers on a regular basis from 4 January, asking what is happening, only to be told registration is opening next week, then next week, then next week. We finally gave up on 22 February.”

Echoing the words of Frost, Bayly says this was a missed opportunity for the industry. “Indaba has a place as a truly inclusive show that celebrates all aspects of tourism. Unfortunately, there are now too many international show organisers who have moved into this space and, through entry restrictions and price point, divided our industry.”

Nevertheless, registration for the Travel Indaba finally opened, and despite the many empty spaces, lost opportunities and absent faces, the show went on and much business was done. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.


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