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 South Africa. While only the most ignorant among us will deny 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, South Africa is the largest tourism economy in Africa, contributing in excess of R420 billion to the economy in 2018. The travel and tourism industry directly and indirectly supported 1.5 million jobs in total, which amounted to 9.5% of total employment.
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 cultures, the friendliness of our people and a most favourable exchange rate are just some of the reasons South Africa 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 Ramaphosa is one of only a few leaders who has recognised tourism’s potential contribution to meaningful economic growth.
I agree with Mr 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 only to 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. South Africa has plans to double the number of incoming visitors by 2030.
An ambitious goal by any account, but one that is certainly attainable if both the public and private sector work together and support the initiatives under way to realise this objective. What Mr 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 of the country’s postcard-pretty destination are home to people who do not know where their next meal will come from?
While we can never condone crime and/or violence, we need to understand 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. Through involving these communities in this dynamic industry, we can contribute to improving the lives of many South Africans, while at the same time attracting even more visitors.
There are numerous campaigns and initiatives in place to address crime and violence in tourist areas, but how often do we hear about them? Mr 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. I am strongly in alignment with Mr Fox’s belief that it’s our job and privilege to celebrate South Africa. Yes, we must acknowledge the challenges.
But let’s choose to focus our energies on working together in finding new solutions and celebrating those already working.