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SA tourism industry’s decade of dashed hopes

If President Cyril Ramaphosa really believes tourism is an apex sector for job creation, he needs to take the industry more seriously.
Gauteng's Maropeng Cradle of Humankind World Heritage site. Image: Shutterstock

Tourism is South Africa’s new gold. This is a marketing tagline people in the industry will remember well as it became quite popular ahead of the 2010 Fifa World Cup ten years ago.

Back then, the country was on a high.

Despite not getting as many international visitors as we would have liked during the soccer spectacular (with the world economy just recovering from the global financial crisis of 2008/09), many leaders in the tourism industry were excited at the prospect of leveraging off one of the biggest international events to significantly grow foreign tourism arrivals to the country.

Around 2010 there was even talk of South Africa becoming one of the “top 20 tourism destinations in the world by 2020”.

While it did not become an official government target, Tourism Minister at the time, Marthinus van Schalkwyk, even touted the country surpassing the 20 million international visitors mark by 2020.

Industry leaders, like former Tourism Business Council of SA (TBCSA) CEO Mmatsatsi Ramawela and acting Brand South Africa CEO, Paul Bannister, envisioned South Africa using the World Cup to boost its profile and tourism growth like Barcelona had done for Spain and Sydney for Australia following the hosting of the Olympic Games in 1992 and 2000.

Bannister, a marketing heavyweight who was behind the development of the welcome South Africa flag logo, even believed at the time that the country should not lose momentum and should have bid for the 2011 Rugby World Cup and 2020 Olympic Games.

In hindsight, the latter would have been a predicament for South Africa now, had Durban (which was punted at the time) bid against Tokyo, considering the global chaos the Covid-19 pandemic has caused. Japan’s 2020 Olympics has now been moved to next year.

But, the argument by Bannister and company more than a decade ago, was that the country had already invested in new stadia and tourism infrastructure, such as the upgrades of the major international airports. The stadium in Durban even accommodates space for an athletics track.

It is worth noting, that Durban bid and won hosting rights for the 2022 Commonwealth Games. But, perhaps highlighting the deteriorated state of South Africa during the “lost ten years” under Jacob Zuma’s presidency, the country gave up the hosting rights during this time, after government was not able to commit to financial guarantees.

Coming back to tourism, South Africa lost a huge opportunity here over the last ten years. We have had a few “stop starts”.

We did not take advantage of the 2010 Fifa World Cup enough, especially post the event, to become a top 20 tourism destination.

There was some hope in 2009, when the Zuma presidency established tourism as a stand-alone department under Van Schalkwyk. But by 2014, Van Schalkwyk – the country’s most experienced Tourism Minister (he was in charge of the previous Environmental Affairs and Tourism Department since 2004) and who was being considered for a international tourism position, was axed in favour of Derek Hanekom.

Van Schalkwyk is now South Africa’s ambassador to Australia.

Meanwhile, Hanekom made some headway by building closer relationships with industry bodies such as the SA Tourism Services Association (Satsa) and TBCSA during the stop-start stints as Tourism Minister since 2014. The national agency, South African Tourism, also seemed to be on the right track, with the appointment of Sisa Ntshona as CEO.

But, then came perhaps one of the worse pieces of legislation that have dealt a major blow to international tourism to South Africa since 2015. The Home Affairs Department’s rules around unabridged birth certificates for minors travelling to the country.

Read: Tourism wins: Govt to abolish unabridged birth certificate rules 

Former Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba, who was a strong backer of Zuma at the time, took on Hanekom in enforcing the legislation. Hanekom, did not last long and was fired by Zuma in 2017 amid political battles within the ANC.

Hanekom made a brief comeback in the portfolio when Cyril Ramaphosa became president in 2018. A Ramaphosa backer, he also no doubt played a key role in influencing government’s eventual U-turn on the disastrous unabridged birth certificate rules late last year.

The impact of the legislation could be seen in the more than 2% decline in international tourist arrivals to South Africa in 2019, with just over 243 000 fewer visitors (10.2 million) compared to 2018.

This came in stark contrast to the 4% growth in tourism globally last year. However, the drought in Cape Town, xenophobic violence in the country and the perennial issue around crime, and its impact on destination South Africa, would have also been contributing factors.

Read: SA’s international tourist arrivals ‘not looking good’

In 2010 the country saw just over 8 million arrivals. We are nowhere near Van Schalkwyk’s dreams of 20 million, however, last year the industry set a new goal of targeting 21 million arrivals by 2030.

Current Tourism Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane has only been in the role for just over a year, after being appointed to the post following the 2019 national elections in May.

One could say it has been a baptism of fire, having to deal with the tail end of the unabridged birth certificate issue; the 10-month suspension of SA Tourism CEO Sisa Ntshona; and now the biggest challenge yet – the devastating impact of Covid-19 on the tourism sector.


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Notwithstanding recent criticism of Kubayi-Ngubane as head of the tourism portfolio, she has been one of the busiest ministers in trying to address some of the issues faced by the sector amidst the Covid-19 crisis. Decisions around the lockdown, despite its devastating impact on the tourism and hospitality sector, are made by national government.

Whether we like it or not, tourism is still not taken seriously by government. The Tourism Department itself is a minnow department in the bigger scheme of things and has taken one of the biggest budget cuts. One has to question how big a say it has at the Covid-19 National Command Council.

Before the pandemic crisis, President Ramaphosa in both his State of the Nation Addresses (2020 and 2019) highlighted the tourism industry as one of the apex sectors for job creation and growth. Is the president hearing the sector’s pleas for help?


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Ramaphosa tenure as state president will be judged by how
1) Covid19 was managed.
2) the economy has performed by inter alia job creation and growth of the tourist industry.
3) corruption and looting have been eradicated and the guilty parties brought to book.
4) reducing the spending and debt levels within the SOE’s, government departments & municipalities.

Get real. Without functional airlines, proper regional integration, investment in the sector and airport hubs tourism will never save us.

The government destroyed SA and its tourism.

If only this government would focus on crime, and stimulating economic growth, it would be a much better place.

Yep … Our reputation internationally as unsafe, dirty and where anything you own may get stolen precedes us.

beachcomber.its even more dangerous now in SA with the ultimate high unemployment rate and it will get worse.

I’ve been bleating on about tourism for more than a decade and have been wondering why this instant foreign exchange injection has been so low-key on the ANC priority list.

The only conclusion I can come up with is that it’s too diverse for them to understand, control and loot (like SAA, Sanral, Eskom etc). I don’t know if there is some undercurrent of racial bias towards wealthy Europeans, but they have definitely killed the goose that lays the golden egg.

And it’s also not obvious to them how to make large-scale, illegal profits from tourism, which tends to have multiple, small sources of revenue. But “fortunately”, the lock-down is deliberately creating opportunities for them to muscle in, by destroying existing tourism businesses.

Hope as they say is just unrealised FAILURE.

None more so true than our very own TOURIST industry. RSAs canary in the coal mine – it is lying on its back with its feet in the air!

@beachcomber is spot on – there is clear evidence that there is an all out assault against the perceived ‘previously advantaged’. This is clear in non-sensical lock down rules.

I would remind the ANC that these tourists, own houses and pump billions of $$$ into the SA economy annually. Losing/ discarding them, will and is having a huge impact on sentiment torward SA – accelerating an established trend.

South Africa is blessed with a fascinating diversity of culture, environment and wildlife. Topped off with its warm-hearted open friendliness, great weather and kaleidoscope of ground shifting historic events and interactions, it has a strong attraction for many.

This will and does appeal to a great number of travellers worldwide. In a sense, our heritage from first peoples to the stone age to first nations and modern times is largely intact. Unlike fractured societies in the rest of the World, disconnected from their past, the knowledge and higher Truths of homosapiens sapiens on show here can be shared through the tourism window with everyone.

It is the only sector that has the potential to uplift the nation into equality, wealth, education and health going forward if unpacked properly.

I think SA has massive, untapped tourism potential, but, as noted above doesn’t lend itself to government (the ANC) controlling the bulk of it, as is their wont, usually for purposes of personal gain. So they refuse to make it easy and safe for high value tourists to obtain the experiences they want; my guess; beach, game parks, mountains, maybe culture and simple sport. SA has a decent game park infrastructure but unsupported for private operators, culture is distorted and over played, the rest are ignored.

By “sport” I mean relatively cheap, mass participation events (Comrades etc), not those requiring expensive (rip off) facilities to be built.

SA has a good number of “tourists” (10m or so) but indifferent spend (US$9bn vs Australia’s US$45bn).

I agree with what you say here Paul and add that isn’t it amazing in South Africa that whenever we have a straight forward opinion about something, we always have to have a lengthy background explanation in store to explain away any potential “political” inferences? This despite the fact none of us are actually politicians! So, with due apology to any offended parties, here goes mine…

Appreciating the depth of SA diversity, and developing stories which integrate and weave amongst these realms is a factor of local skills development, value appreciation, upliftment and imagination.

We will easily surpass any forecast targets if the impediments are identified and the interferences removed.

Often I notice the appeal and diversity is missed by South Africans themselves- perhaps they are too close to the cliff face to see the beautiful picture that emerges when we take a few steps back?

A level of reality check is needed in realising that reliance on plutocrats who vie for status and position within a political hierarchy is not exactly going to “open the doors” for much more than a couple of relatives and a motley array of “close” family ties.

The role of government in this industry is not so much creative as supportive. They are not the brains behind the initiative- otherwise they would have proper jobs.

We face the same problem in so many areas of the South African social development arena. Entire sectors have been wracked with mismanagement, unproductive habits, corruption and ignorance.

Depoliticising critical sectors such as education and health where there are disasters unfolding day by day could be coupled with this vital sector, Tourism.

I suspect this “depoliticisation” issue is not only a South African one. The entire World has reached it’s limit for democratic government interference. This means we have support in finding our way forward and resolving this issue.

In essence, this is a core part of what the 4th Industrial revolution is all about.

First start with the assumption that government is hellbent on destroying everything in this nation. Brace and hedge your finances and livelihood around it.

That way, all the news is so much easier to digest.

Perhaps we should all face a new reality and agree everything has CHANGED. The tourism sector will not move rapidly back to pre covid numbers. We have around 2 years of limping along and are 6 months in.

In a recession the last areas that recover are discretionary spend I.e. tourism, restaurants and other entertainment.

We need to focus on the bottom of maslow hierarchy and create employment in agriculture and manufacturing. This creates increased employment with strong web linkages to other industries.
The employees will then spend their salaries travelling locally. International travel will easily take 5 years to get back to previous numbers.

End of comments.


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