In a set of wide-ranging discussions, the 2015 SATSA Conference held at Fancourt from August 13-15 debated some of the most burning issues currently concerning South Africa’s inbound travel sector. Some 250 delegates attended the event, which also drew authoritative panellists and moderators.

Of course, the hot topic – South Africa’s new visa regulations and application processes – was given much attention and the keynote address by Minister of Tourism, Derek Hanekom, drew a full house. Minister Hanekom appealed to delegates to give the inter-ministerial committee investigating visa regulations a chance. The committee was recently announced by government and is to be chaired by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. The Minister stated that the committee had every intention of analysing the situation and seeking solutions. Safety of children and easier access into the country were not mutually exclusive, he said.

Minister Hanekom indicated that a benefit of the media attention accompanying the visa issue was increased recognition of tourism for its ability to grow the economy. Heart could also be taken from the many awards South African tourism continued to receive, pointing to the country’s quality of product, which coupled with the favourable exchange rate, made the destination a powerful magnet.

He also referenced the recent SA Tourism performance review, stating that a fundamental finding was the need for a more dynamic partnership between the tourism board and industry.

Echoing an earlier debate on the future of trade shows in South Africa, in which delegates questioned whether there were not too many such events as well as the future of SA Tourism’s Indaba, Hanekom stated a strategic Indaba partner would be signed next year, for involvement in the trade show from 2017.

A panel on transformation included a number of SMMEs, who agreed that the most pressing aspect of their operation was access to markets. They impressed on delegates the need to get transformation right as a pathway to the industry’s sustainability and appealed for trust and mentoring. Together with the Gauteng Tourism Authority, SATSA will hold an SMME Indaba later this year, introducing Gauteng SMMEs to established tour operators, with a view to greater collaboration. Plans are to extend the SMME Indaba to all provinces.

On the subject of sustainability, the concept of a Tourism Conservation Fund was introduced to SATSA delegates. Funding will be obtained through voluntary contributions by tourists (at a rate of 0.5% on the tourism product price). The Peace Parks Foundation has committed R6 million to underwrite the establishment of the fund and to structure and manage it. One of the motivators of the fund, SA Tourism Board Member and founder of Wilderness Safaris, Colin Bell, stated that if the industry came together at scale, it could, without impacting on individual businesses, make a considerable difference. The fund is set for launching on September 22, World Rhino Day. Its establishment is perhaps all the more necessary in the light of information given by Glenn Phillips, CEO of the Kruger National Park, that despite tens of registered charities aimed at saving rhinos, very little funding was seen by South Africa’s premier game sanctuary.

The conference reviewed two of South African source markets – the established USA and the emerging Middle East. With outbound travel from the US showing modest growth, the potential for South Africa from this region is still vast, considering that a very small percentage of USA long-haul travellers visits this country. SA Tourism reported taking note of the USA market’s desire for personalised, varied and rejuvenating experiences encompassing contemporary culture, without losing the comforts of home. Basic information on the country, however, was possibly lacking or not inspiring enough.

The Middle East, with a large expatriate population and excellent air capacity into South Africa, is tipped as a winner for inbound operators who put the effort into unlocking it. Tour operators with successful track records in the region pointed out that the market was trade driven, and South African businesses needed to be more supportive of trade shows and campaigns staged there.

Similarly, the special interest grouping of adventure tourism was identified as a market in need of promotion, with South Africa hosting an inordinate diversity in the field. Dirty Boots MD Johan Radcliffe estimated current worth at some R5 billion. Here SATSA is involved with the Department of Tourism on drawing up guidelines for self-regulation of the sector, drawing from best practices worldwide.

In a session titled ‘The Great Rate Debate’, panellists discussed the position of wholesale rates in a dynamic environment, and the minefield of diverse distribution channels that must be negotiated. While many issues were laid on the table, the general consensus was that the platform would remain crowded as technology continued to offer new avenues, and a ‘one size fits all’ solution was not on the horizon.

Also having to adapt to new roles wrought by technology, are tour operators, who now operate in a variety of shades from traditional to digital. However suppliers taking part in a discussion on the tour operator of today indicated that these players remain significant in their ability to combine single products and deliver them to market. Speakers acknowledged that fast-changing technology had to be embraced for its innovation, and for survival.

Emerging in the debate on Responsible Tourism was that many SATSA members are already engaged in aspects of RT, and should perhaps be making more noise on their achievements. Stories told by panellists revealed that relatively small efforts go a long way in trickling down to communities. They emphasised the people component of responsible tourism, cautioned about confusing corporate social responsibility with responsible tourism, and supported certification.

SA Tourism’s Global Manager Marketing & Advertising, Ian Utermohlen, in a discussion on domestic tourism, revealed that the depths of this market are yet to be mined. Increased budgets will enable the tourism board to address 14 instead of five of its identified domestic segments. Its philosophy is, through research, to create insights into domestic tourism to guide the trade in its packaging and marketing.