Let's engage, come up with solutions to fix SA tourism

The author says the tourism sector in SA should have higher returns
The author says the tourism sector in SA should have higher returns
Image: 123EF / nicoelnino

In a recent open letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa, Getaway editor Justin Fox expressed his frustration with the challenges faced by the travel and tourism industry in SA.

While only the most ignorant among us will deny that there are challenges, I want to take this opportunity to offer a different view of an industry that, on balance, is, if not flourishing, certainly performing fairly.

The tourism sector is one that has managed to demonstrate great resilience despite a less than favourable economic climate.

According to the World Travel and Tourism Council's 2018 Economic Impact report, SA is the largest tourism economy in Africa, contributing in excess of R420bn to the economy in 2018. The travel and tourism industry directly and indirectly supported 1,5 million jobs in total.

What I will admit is frustrating about this is that these figures can (and should) be so much higher. The natural splendour, the moderate weather, the rich mix of culture, the friendliness of our people and a most favourable exchange rate are just some of the reasons SA should be one of the world's top tourist destinations.

With so much potential, we can't afford to bemoan the negative, but need to set about elevating and building on the positive.

Ultimately, actions speak louder than words, which is why it is useful to consider initiatives and policies that contribute to the growth, resilience and appeal of the travel and tourism sector in unlikely destinations, and to take from it what is useful to us too.

It's also useful to bear in mind that President Ramaphosa is one of only few leaders who has recognised tourism's potential to contribute to meaningful economic growth.

I agree with Fox that we require more boldness - perhaps to the likes of our central African neighbour, Rwanda. A nation brought to its knees by the 1994 genocide that will be remembered as one of the host horrific human tragedies in modern history, the country has managed not to only stabilise, but to become one of the most popular tourist destinations on the continent.

The tourism sector in Rwanda is the largest foreign exchange earner in the country, and sees a steady increase in visitor numbers each year. The growth of the industry is widely attributed to the security, stability and infrastructure investment that has been a priority in the country for more than a decade now.

In the tourism sector, we have seen a number of organisations expressing their anxiety about the risks to the industry created by security concerns, and there are initiatives among these players to address the concerns.

What Fox does not speak to is the fact that we operate in a highly unequal country. How do we talk about a flourishing tourism economy when the villages tourists pass through en-route to some postcard-pretty destinations are home to people who do not know where their next meal will come from?

While we can never condone crime, we need to understand that this is part of a systemic problem that needs to be structurally addressed at various levels. Let's talk about the need to engage communities better around the role tourism plays in SA.

In addition to changing our approach to tourism and applying the lessons learned from the Rwandan example, Fox mentioned that [at Getaway] "it's our job and privilege to celebrate South Africa".

This is a sentiment that I believe should be echoed by all, and not just those employed in the travel and tourism industry. I am strongly in alignment with his belief that it is our job and our privilege to celebrate SA.

-Mabena is CEO of Thebe Tourism

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