South Africa may not be the biblical Promised Land. Yet despite its recent tortuous past, its shores and majestic landscapes over nine biomes leave few with any doubt that it is a land full of promise.
A luminary born of this land once reminded us that “we owe our beings to the hills and the valleys, the mountains and the glades, the rivers, the deserts, the trees, the flowers, the seas, and the ever-changing seasons that define the face of our native land”.
This reminds us of our collective identity and the need to harness our potential. Just as Pretty Yende, the South African opera singer, captivates audiences with her magnificent voice, we have the power and duty to captivate the world with the beauty of our land.
Our natural landscapes, diverse wildlife, vibrant culture and warm hospitality inspire and move people. Mother Nature has gifted this land with unparalleled gifts which many in the world can only dream of.
The ground below has yielded minerals that have turned what was a backwater country into the industrial complex we now are. Above ground, the limestone caverns of the Magaliesberg and Taung reveal the secrets of human origins in the bones of the Taung Child and Little Foot.
We are blessed with the flowers of Namaqualand, the aloes of the Tankwa Karoo, the fynbos of the Cape Floral Kingdom, the acacias and abundant bird life of the Bushveld, the majestic mountains of the Cape and the Drakensberg and many more breathtaking wonders.
These wonders present us with a unique opportunity to unlock the one thing that will build our immediate and long-term economic riches — tourism.
Our natural landscapes, diverse wildlife, vibrant culture and warm hospitality have the potential to animate people, transcending language, cultural barriers and divisions of the past and present.
These riches are not just experiential but financial, accruing to us in real-income terms. People travel vast distances, at great expense, spending limited holiday time to experience the aesthetic delights of the world.
A global money-spinner
Beauty moves people. It inspires them to action and causes them to consider interacting with beauty that is worth hard-earned money.
In 1950, only 25 million international trips were recorded. But by 2019, 1.5 billion international trips took place in that year. This global travel activity generated $9.2-trillion, which approximates to R113-trillion in 2019 and accounts for more than 10% of global GDP and 334 million jobs worldwide.
By the end of the 2018/2019 financial year — the last full year unaffected by the Covid-19 pandemic — tourism injected R116.9-billion into the South African economy through direct spending by international and domestic tourists. Although this performance might sound impressive, it represents a mere 1% of the global total. It requires no genius to demonstrate the untapped and enormous opportunity of our place in global tourism.
Top independent experts in tourism agree that the quality of our offering is underachieving its potential. Hence, a forecast that our tourism industry will have doubled in the next decade is not unrealistic.
Take for example the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) forecast from its Economic Impact Report, which points out that the South African travel and tourism sector is forecast to grow at an average rate of 7.6% annually over the next decade, significantly outstripping the 1.8% growth rate of the country’s overall economy.
Few endeavours hold as much significance for South Africa as the task of increasing income flows to our businesses and workforce. We face the social challenge of fostering broad-based economic participation and allowing more individuals to access products and services that enhance their standard of living.
Tourism, with its immense potential, offers us the opportunity to address this challenge at scale. For instance, the same WTTC report anticipates the creation of around 800,000 new jobs and numerous other economic benefits, all of which are desperately needed in our country.
Few things could be as important in South Africa as increasing the incomes flowing into the country to its businesses and their employees. We need more people to participate in the economy in productive ways such that more people are able to purchase a wide range of products and services that increase their standard of living and produce the incomes that allow people to survive and thrive. In tourism, we possess one of the greatest potential gifts to make this happen at broad scale.
The gains that have been achieved in tourism have always been as a result of various role-players contributing their unique value in meaningful ways. In times past, South African Tourism (SAT) played a vital role in the sector, alongside a host of private and public stakeholders that comprise the South African tourism ecosystem.
In recent times, despite a loss of trust within SAT that led to bad press and high-level exits from the agency, the SAT mandate remains that of an agency that should be focused on being a creator of an enabling environment for the entire South African tourism industry, ensures the tourist is the centre of focus, and resists undue influence to prioritise certain tourism elements over others.
The need for collaboration
It is evident from recent travel trade shows such as Meetings Africa and Africa’s Tourism Indaba that collaboration is the central driving force for tourism advancement, both domestically and with partners abroad.
Amid the challenges being experienced at SAT, we need to rebuild a leadership everyone can have faith in and that continually improves its standard of delivery in line with international best practice.
South African Tourism has a beautiful mandate. It aims to help our brightest stars to shine brighter and to include emergent ones into a broad-based galaxy of offerings. It must choreograph, channel and drive important, valuable and productive societal gains, which is a great responsibility.
A job not well done can mean the difference between abject poverty and facilitating an increasingly better life for all South Africans.
In the face of this important aim, what should be the most appropriate and urgent response of all the leaders of this sector of our economy? Surely it is not to prey on the weaknesses of our current circumstances by turning the screws of partisan influence. Might it be possible to respond by rather asking a more beautiful question?
In Warren Berger’s book, A More Beautiful Question, the application of the concepts would lead to a line of questioning that every participant in the tourism industry should thoughtfully consider: “How might we best contribute and collaborate to effectively advance the South African tourism ecosystem?”
Surely the best answers to the more beautiful question will animate industry players to actively participate in supporting a stronger SAT, knowing that a strong agency will be a better agent for the propulsion of all tourism interests. Surely the various players will know that this option is best for the advancement of their own unique interests and needs. Surely industry participants will know that the ability to cause a rising tide will lift all ships.
South Africa has a heritage, a story that we should not forget. In times of adversity, we do come together. In the face of even serious threats and/or disagreements, we do tend towards national unity. Although this is often hard-fought and even difficult to do, it provides us with the platform that we have used to date to propel our advancement.
Once again, we are confronted with another such decision. The decision before us is to support the rebuilding of a stronger tourism industry that benefits all role-players and all who must participate in and benefit from it. We must harness our unique offerings in a collaborative manner that ensures that we lift others in the sector as we rise.
For too many years South Africa has laboured under the threat and reality of societal instabilities that all unequal societies experience. In our case, we have had the unenviable distinction of being labelled the most unequal society in the world.
We stand at the gateway of an outcome even more beautiful than the increase of visitors and the spend they bring into the country. The opportunity is for the industry to grow ever larger, financially capacitating ever more people and strengthening the fabric of our society at large.
Ours is a beautiful land. As Oscar Wilde, once said: “Beauty is a form of Genius — is higher, indeed, than Genius, as it needs no explanation. It is one of the great facts of the world, like sunlight, or springtime, or the reflection in the dark waters of that silver shell we call the moon. It cannot be questioned. It has divine right of sovereignty. It makes princes of those who have it.”
The meaning of life is to find our gifts. This is the essence of the responsibility of those who lead the tourism sector: to give people beautiful and unforgettable gifts.
We bear the duty of reminding ourselves, as our celebrated jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim would do with his magical fingers on pieces of ivory, that we are gifted with “Waters from an Ancient Well”. DM