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After the Bell: The critical reasons why South Africa is good at tourism

After the Bell: The critical reasons why South Africa is good at tourism
Buckler’s Africa Lodge. (Photo: Tingana Collection) | Beach goers enjoy the view at Sea Point Beach, Cape Town. (Photo: Gallo Images/Daily Maverick/Leila Dougan) | Safari tourists watch a lion in Sabi Sand Nature Reserve. (Photo: David Silverman / Getty Images) | Locals enjoy a game of beach volleyball at Camps Bay Beach. (Photo: Shelley Christians)

South Africa may have messed up many parts of its economy, but somehow the tourism industry has escaped the destruction and it ranks extremely well internationally.

One of the strange things about foreign travel is that almost anywhere you go, there is an enormous number of foreigners.  That’s writer and former Miami Herald columnist Dave Barry on the subject of tourism, about which he has written several very funny books. In one, Dave Barry’s Only Travel Guide You’ll Ever Need, he makes the point that the human race is far too stupid to be deterred from tourism by a mere several million years of bad experiences and today we’re travelling in larger numbers than ever.

“We travel because, no matter how comfortable we are at home, there’s a part of us that wants — that needs — to see new vistas, take new tours, obtain new travellers’ checks, buy souvenirs, order new entrées, introduce new bacteria into our intestinal tracts, learn new words for ‘transfusion’ and have all the other travel adventures that make us want to French-kiss our doormats when we finally get home,” he writes.

Despite Barry’s weirdly accurate warnings and the enormous expense and discomfort of travelling, I do love it — as do so many people around the world. The curious thing is I’m not exactly sure why. Relaxation, learning and exploration are part of it. There is also the sheer thrill of getting away from the ordinariness of your life, even when your life is not at all ordinary. One reason I enjoy foreign travel —  and local travel for that matter — is that you understand, once again, how ignorant you are.

The growth in the travel industry is extraordinary. Of course, it got smashed during the Covid years, but the global industry is now just above its pre-2020 numbers. Excluding this event, the travel industry has more or less doubled over the past decade. The International Air Transport Association has a specific measure called “revenue passenger kilometres” (RPK) to measure the total distance travelled by passengers on aeroplanes. In 2014, the global RPK was 500 billion per month, today it is about 900 billion, of which about 60% is constituted by international travel.

For developing countries, tourism is an invaluable industry, unless you run into a global pandemic. Generally speaking, the economic utility of foreign tourism from the point of view of the host country is that you are essentially exporting a service, except that your customers come to you to buy that service in your country. South Africa may have messed up many parts of its economy, but somehow the tourism industry has escaped the destruction and ranks extremely well internationally.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Tourism a critical key driver of economic growth but we must stop scoring own goals

On Tuesday, the World Economic Forum released its Travel & Tourism Development Index for 2024 and the report is very positive about SA’s tourism industry and its bounce-back from Covid, despite being only cautiously optimistic about the state of the global industry.

I love these reports because they try to provide something like a global benchmark, but of course, they have weaknesses. It’s very difficult to aggregate something like tourism because people travel for such different reasons and have enormously different requirements. For some, just to take one example, value-for-money is an absolute necessity (like me!); for others, it’s the cultural experience, and so on.

But even with these problems of aggregation, SA shines, and my question is: Why? It’s not as though SA is shooting the lights out: its current rank is 55 out of 119 countries measured. But it’s in the same league as Thailand, Vietnam and Egypt — all great tourist destinations. It’s head and shoulders above all other sub-Saharan countries except Mauritius. As you might expect, SA tracks very well on the “value-for-money” rating — as one of our British friends likes to tease, “We laugh at your currency…” — and very poorly on the “personal safety” score.

But importantly, this is one measurement where SA is actually improving, unlike so many other international rankings where we’ve lost standing. The report notes that SA is up about seven places since last year. The scoring is complex and includes everything from ICT readiness, health and hygiene, to the state of industry and its environmental awareness.

Read more in Daily Maverick: SA Tourism recovers R35-million in irregular payments, New York office under scrutiny

Like a lot of these reports, when you throw everything into the mix, Europe and North America tend to dominate because they tick so many boxes; in this survey, the US scores highest, with Spain, Japan and a slew of European countries at the top of the list. The report isn’t so much to rank tourist destinations as to benchmark “factors and policies that enable the sustainable and resilient development” of the sector, but it comes down to much the same thing.

Overall, the findings indicate that international tourist arrivals and the travel and tourism sector’s contribution to global GDP are expected to return to pre-pandemic levels this year, but the report also notes some broad problems, including a lack of capital investment, the constraining effect of high inflation and — interestingly — extreme weather. But generally, the industry is back.

So to return to the question of why SA seems to be succeeding here. I suspect it’s a variety of factors — these things always are. SA’s natural attractions are magnificent, of course: varied geography, fabulous wildlife, dramatic coastlines and you can add great hotels, quirky art towns, cool culture, etc. SA also has some additional advantages: a contra-climate to that of the Northern Hemisphere, a European time zone, accessibility by overnight flights and, oh yes, that weak currency.

But you know what I think has made a real difference? Good government and private sector cooperation. This cooperation started long before it was fashionable, ushering in the soccer World Cup in 2010. The collaboration has held its ground, partly I think because the big ideologues in government don’t care about tourism. You can see that in the fact that the tourism minister, Patricia de Lille, is the only Cabinet member who is not a member of the ANC.

Maybe it’s just that tourism is a very diverse but ultimately simple business. As Dave Barry would say, when you are leaving on a trip, take half the clothes and double the money. DM


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  • Trevor Gray says:

    As much as the author writes with his tongue firmly nestled in his cheek, Govt still manages to wobble the toyrismcart with Kafkaesque idiocy and Auntie is included. Who can forget non black tourist guides being excluded from financial aid during Covid? Also the entrance fees of the sites are exorbitant with overseas guests being ripped a new one. The fable of the Golden goose springs to mind.

  • John Pocock says:

    The reason that the kleptocratic idealogues are not interested in tourism is, I suspect, because it does not offer them the same opportunities to “eat” as do the SOE’s and other sections of the economy. A friend of mine who is involved in tourism in Namibia told me that it employs more people than any other industry in that country in spite of it not being close to being the biggest revenue earner. As the birthplace of Humankind and the original home of all of us Africa, with everything it has to offer has a golden opportunity to be the world’s greatest tourist destination if only the continent could get it’s act together and become more user friendly. Having spent a large part of my career working in various African countries I feel that a well developed and efficient continental tourist industry spanning all borders could lift all of Africa out of poverty by providing massive direct and indirect employment opportunities and contribute to solving most of the problems afflicting this continent.

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