Welcome home, SA

Billboards that encourage travellers to “Sho’t Left” (taxi slang for “jump off just there or around the corner”) litter the Mpumalanga countryside. The mystical, medieval African city of Mapungubwe is preparing to host thousands of visitors when the subcontinent’s latest transfrontier park is launched at the end of the month.

There is also a fun train covered in colourful “Welcome” stickers chugging through the tourism routes of Mpumalanga this week.

September is wall-to-wall with travel and tourism events, whether it is the hiking fraternity of Pits-Onder-Water or the creative powers at KwaZulu-Natal Tourism at work. It is as though every tourism destination in every province in the country is using this month to let the world know that their place is paradise on Earth.

Even the pope is using the pulpit to urge people around the world to remember that tourism “improves relations between individuals and people when they are cordial, respectful and based on solidarity”.

All this is a result of South Africa’s Welcome campaign, symbolised by a little man bedecked in the fluttering colours of the South African flag. It appears on ATMs, credit cards, bumper stickers, aircraft fuselages and hotel bills. The Welcome tourism man and the associated celebration of September as Tourism Month is probably one of the most successful branding campaigns in recent local history.

Like many great ideas, it has its origins in an uneventful day. In mid-1999 former SA Tourism CEO Paul Bannister was drawing on the back of a serviette while having breakfast with then-minister of environmental affairs and tourism Mohammed Valli Moosa and former South African Airways (SAA) CEO Coleman Andrews.

“At the time South Africa’s global marketing campaign was in a bit of a mess and SAA was refusing to pay its levies because it wasn’t sure the money would be well spent,” says Bannister.

“We were playing with the statistic from the World Travel Organisation that one tourist equals eight jobs, and we all knew that two-thirds of most countries’ tourism comes from local people.

“We were approaching the new millennium and needed an icon that would put South Africa on the map. So I drew the Welcome dude on the serviette, SAA put its R10-million of arrears into the Welcome campaign and the rest is history.”

The campaign was launched in December 1999 in Soweto, with Moosa jiving rather awkwardly on stage with Yvonne Chaka Chaka.

In September 2000 South Africa’s first National Tourism Day was launched when the minister and his entourage travelled with journalists through the countryside on a memorable train trip from Cape Town to Kimberley and back.

But in that initiation trip was the germ of what could be a fatal flaw in an otherwise brilliant campaign — over-bureaucratisation.

“Many of us still talk about a massive, collective hangover that seemed to hover for a week as we stopped off at appointed venues en route from Cape Town. We were met by tribal dancing, generally awful food and incredibly long speeches by whatever government honcho was available to take to the podium,” says one participant.

Now that the celebration of Tourism Month has become an institutionalised item on every relevant government department’s agenda, there is the danger that the travel industry will become associated with sitting under a marquee in the blazing sun, listening to 13 long speeches before having a late lunch — the very opposite of the dreams and fantasies that fuel most people’s idea of a good holiday.

The former minister was clearly aware of this danger when he earned his new nickname, Geenbroek, after being caught baring his bum by a photographer while on the beautiful beaches of Kosi Bay.

It wasn’t intended at the time, but the image contained a message that Moosa’s successors — Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism Marthinus “Kortbroek” van Schalkwyk and “Onderbroek” (as Director General Chippy Olver is now affectionately known in the department) — would do well to remember: that travel is business and its success depends on being saucy, sassy and smart.

That, at least, is the mantra of the Mail & Guardian‘s new-look Escape pages.

The Welcome campaign will be relaunched by SA Tourism on World Tourism Day on September 27

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