Tourism: the key to South Africa's future prosperity

Russel Barlow-Jones

South African Tourist Board, London

The South African Board (Satour) has been responsible for the international marketing of South Africa as a tourist destination since 1983. For obvious reasons, many of its greatest obstacles and challenges were experienced during the dying years of the apartheid era. Flexibility, innovation and the ability to adapt to change were prerequisites in the struggle to overcome the ever increasing international censure.

In the wake of the much heralded democratic elections early in 1994, Satour moved swiftly to establish new communication channels and marketing strategies in line with the country's reacceptance as an important member of the international community. Since then it has been extremely gratifying to see large increases in the number of visitors from abroad. A variety of factors has contributed to this most welcome, continuing trend. Among them, positive attitudes to South Africa were engendered internationally after the 1994 election. There has also been an upsurge of curiosity among foreigners to experience for themselves the 'new South Africa'. And President Nelson Mandela's enormous global popularity is undoubtedly another drawcard.

Incoming tourism broke all previous records in 1995, and this was largely ascribed to the peaceful political transition which had taken place in the country. At the same time, the 1995 Rugby World Cup tournament, held in South Africa, generated extensive media coverage and stimulated much interest, especially among fans in Australia, New Zealand and France.

Although there has been a subsequent drop in the euphoria surrounding South Africa's new political dispensation, and a levelling off in terms of overall arrival statistics, growth remains generally healthy at over ten per cent. For instance, in January 1996, our traditional European markets showed encouraging increases eg, France (39 per cent), Holland (28 per cent), UK (14 per cent) and Germany (13 per cent). Heightened interest in South Africa as a holiday destination since 1990 has resulted in an increase from 23 to 59 in the number of international airlines servicing the South African market.

Most respondents in a recent survey indicated that they were attracted (as many other visitors have been before them) primarily by the country's natural attractions: the beautiful scenery, the wildlife and the incomparable climate. Cultural diversity, which is the theme of a forthcoming three-year Satour campaign, jumped from a four per cent level in 1993 to 11 per cent in August 1995, and interest is still growing. However, the appeal of political change has declined from primary to secondary motivator. Three quarters of the respondents said that they would definitely recommend South Africa to their friends and families.

More than 80 per cent of South Africa's tourism potential is yet to be realised, and current statistical predictions are that over seven million foreign tourists will visit this country in the year 2000. Caution prevails, however, and all stakeholders in the industry are well aware that to achieve this goal, four major factors must be dealt with as a matter of priority:

  • crime must be brought under control;
  • standards in the hospitality industry must meet - or preferably exceed - the expectations of visitors;
  • it goes without saying that our tourism infrastructure must expand to meet the projected demand;
  • the fact that South Africa is a long-haul destination and fairly expensive in terms of international air fares means that domestic price structures in all facets of the industry should remain as competitive as possible.
All of these issues are currently being addressed at the highest levels.

Confidence was expressed by Mavuso Msimang, Satour's Executive Director, at a tourism investment seminar held recently in Bonn: "We fully recognise the potential value of tourism in our economy. It is now only our fourth largest earner of foreign exchange, and we intend to realise its ultimate potential. Widespread interest, enthusiasm and goodwill are being directed towards the goal of making tourism a winning industry for all of us."

Mr Msimang reminded delegates of his prime motivating force: "However indirectly, every foreign visitor to our shores makes a contribution to the uplifting of previously disadvantaged people." He added that tourism is of little use if it is not sustainable, if it does not involve local communities, and if it is not properly linked to other appropriate economic sectors.

The new White Paper on Tourism, to be tabled shortly, will encompass all of these issues and provide a framework for responsible tourism development in South Africa.

It is encouraging to note that several high-level international organisations involved in the tourism industry have already recognised the potential value of investment opportunities in this country. Among those which are in the process of developing major projects are three American companies: Hilton, Hyatt and the Days Inn hotel groups. Other investors include the Dutch Golden Tulip hotel group, Rennies Travel, Business Travel International, Southern Sun and Inter-Continental. Foreign investors are also injecting capital into transport systems, airports, roads and tourist attractions.

In the words of His Majesty King Goodwill Zwelithini, King of the Zulus, at the opening of Indaba 1996 (South Africa's most important annual international tourism workshop): "Tourism to South Africa is on an ever-increasing growth path, and the industry is set to create tremendous wealth and uplift the living conditions of our people. We believe that tourism will provide the key to our economic future."