Tourism can reboot SA's economy

Tourism hasn’t realised a fraction of its potential in South Africa because the government still doesn’t believe in it, says recently appointed South African Tourism CEO Sisa Ntshona

By Chris Barron – Sunday Times Business

Tourism hasn’t realised a fraction of its potential in South Africa because the government still doesn’t believe in it, says recently appointed South African Tourism CEO Sisa Ntshona.
It is still regarded as a largely white industry, affecting white people and largely benefiting white people.

“The case for tourism has not been made in this country. Most people still perceive it as an elitist thing that is done only by wealthy (white) people.”

He says this is the prevailing view in the government.

There has been a failure to understand and communicate the economic importance of tourism.
“South Africans need to be educated and informed about the impact of tourism on the economy, its ripple effect on other sectors – how everyone’s wellbeing and economic prosperity can be linked to tourism.”

This applies first and foremost to members of the government.

“The government itself needs to be educated and informed about the nature and benefits for the country of tourism.”

Its attitude to tourism has been one of indifference at best – in spite of tourism being prioritised in the National Development Plan.

As a result, the growth of tourism in South Africa is way behind the global trend, although Ntshona told parliament last week that tourist numbers had increased by about 15% in the six months to June 2016.

The truth is that since 2012 tourist numbers have only increased 0.1%, even though the rand has fallen 44% against the dollar during this period, making South Africa one of the world’s cheapest destinations.

“The world has been growing at 4% per annum in terms of tourism,” Ntshona says. “We are lagging. We’re behind it. We’re going backwards. We need to at least meet that.”

The single most calamitous setback for the industry was the introduction of new visa regulations by the Department of Home Affairs.

Ntshona argues that this attitude would not be possible if more people felt they had a stake in the industry.

The government’s “hard stance” on tourism reflects the belief that the sector is largely untransformed and perceived as elitist.

Transformation is “not about slicing up the pie, it’s about growing the pie”, he says.
He wants to make the townships a much greater part of the tourism offering. Vilakazi Street in Soweto, the only street in the world to have housed two Nobel peace prize winners, Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, is a must-see tourist destination, and other townships have their own Vilakazi Street, he says.

“There can’t only be one Vilakazi Street. Each province needs to have its own Vilakazi Street.”
For tourism to be properly prioritised by the government, it needs to be properly transformed.
“We need to protect this industry. And we do that by making sure it is perceived in the right way and its impact is felt not just by a few but by the entire space. So we have to be proactive in terms of how we bring others in.”

Until people in the townships start to say “Hey, minister, you’re messing with our livelihood”, ministers like Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba will continue with policies that are hostile to tourism.

“We need to make tourism everyone’s issue. If it’s only five faces objecting, and always the same faces, you can easily ignore them. If it’s the whole country, you can’t.”

Most people in the government, to the extent that they think about tourism at all, “do not look down the value chain”. They don’t understand its benefits to the economy.

Which is why ministers like Gigaba are so sceptical about industry claims that tourism, which contributes 9% to GDP, could contribute 20%.

Ntshona believes 20% “and more” is eminently achievable given South Africa’s extraordinary assets and favourable exchange rate. He wants to see its contribution double by the time his five-year contract ends.

He has a number of ideas about how this can be done, including more effective utilisation of the country’s 120 foreign embassies for marketing purposes, more comprehensive analysis and better use of technology.

“We have not invested enough in technology to make sure we keep up with all the developments that are happening.

“The use of apps, of different platforms – technology is creeping into all these spaces yet we still have bricks and mortar and posters on buses.”

His immediate priority is to make sure that the importance of tourism to the whole country is understood. If he can’t get this message across, he says, “whatever else I do becomes a bit futile. So my role must be to ensure that tourism is at the forefront of everyone’s mind – especially government itself.”

The place to start is the interministerial forum led by Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe, set up to realise the vision of the National Development Plan, which highlights the importance of tourism. This makes its neglect by the government even more startling, he says.

“It’s mentioned as a priority sector. It is highlighted very loudly in there. But what we haven’t done is execute it.

“We’ve got this great blueprint. Let’s make it come alive, let’s commit to it and make sure that we apply the right resources, attention and focus so that it starts to come through.”

His task will be to “use Radebe to bring the other ministers along, to make sure that whatever they do is through the lens of tourism. I’m trying to bring influence to bear across different ministries.”
Industry players have complained that they are excluded from the interministerial forum, but this has been addressed, Ntshona says.

There is another committee, chaired by Minister of Tourism Derek Hanekom, on which the minister of finance sits – together with the captains of the tourism industry – which meets four times a year.
Ntshona has nothing but praise for Hanekom, whose future is in the balance after he proposed a motion of no confidence in President Jacob Zuma at last week’s meeting of the ANC’s national executive committee.

Should Hanekom lose his cabinet position it will be a major setback for the industry, he says.
“We’ll have to start all over again just to get them familiar with the things I am doing. I’m new, we’ve got a relatively new board, the director-general is fairly new. We’re carving a space for ourselves. Another disruption would not be beneficial.”

Hanekom’s departure would “disrupt the momentum, the flow that we have”.
It took a lot of persuasion by the board of South African Tourism to get Ntshona, 42, a former investment banker for Absa who has an MBA from the Gordon Institute of Business Science, to accept the job.

“I’m not from the sector and I’m not from government. I’m a banker, essentially. My initial view was, why do you want a banker to get involved in tourism?’

“What won the case for me was the direct link to the Treasury. My core delivery is to increase the contribution of tourism to the GDP.”

He has been in consultations with ratings agencies, “giving our story as to how we as a country are going to kick-start this space” he says.

“The traditional contributors to GDP, mining and manufacturing, are under pressure. Therefore this is seen as the next space that is going to kick-start the economy. It touches on so many other sectors from financial to construction – across the board.

“If we light this up it will have a ripple effect. This is where my mind gets excited.”

Until he thinks about the country’s visa requirements, which continue to damage the industry.
He accepts the need for vigilance against child trafficking and possible terrorists, “but we need a balance”, he says.

“I sincerely want to believe that no one wakes up and says: ‘I’m going to deliberately hold this sector back.’

“It benefits no one. I can’t get my mind around how that could happen.
“But it is what it is. I can sit here and pull my hair out or say: ‘Look, I just have to deal with it.'”

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