Finding answers in tourism

Professor Melville Saayman, research director of Tourism Research in Economic Environs and Society at North West University

Professor Melville Saayman, research director of Tourism Research in Economic Environs and Society at North West University

Which export sector is one of the world’s largest and fastest growing, contributes to 10% of global GDP, and accounts for one in 11 jobs worldwide? You may be surprised to discover that it’s tourism.

These statistics come from the United Nations’ World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). Further data show that international tourist arrivals are expected to reach 1.8-billion by 2030, with 58% of these in emerging economies.

South Africa’s tourism

According to the Benchmark Report 2017 — South Africa (World Travel and Tourism Council), travel and tourism generated a total contribution of $27-billion to the country’s GDP in 2016. This is a larger than that of the automotive manufacturing, agriculture, and chemical manufacturing sectors.

In the same period, it sustained a total of 1.5-million direct, indirect and induced jobs in the country. This means that it directly supported nearly twice as many jobs as the mining sector and more than five times as many jobs as the automotive manufacturing sector.

Taking these figures into account, it becomes clearer as to why the UN has declared 2017 the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development.

Sustainability in tourism

According to UNTWO, sustainable tourism considers “current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities”.

It’s about optimal use of environmental resources, respecting the sociocultural context of host communities, and providing viable long-term socioeconomic benefits to all. Sustainable tourism also encompasses poverty reduction, increased employment, biodiversity protection, and working within a Green Economy.

Research into tourism impact

Sustainable tourism crosses over into many science-related fields (from the green economy to environmental protection) and tourism is a research field in its own right.

Professor Melville Saayman is research director of Tourism Research in Economic Environs and Society (Trees) at North West University (NWU). His research areas look at tourism economics and management.

Saayman applies his research in three core areas: nature-based tourism, event management, and leisure and recreation. The differentiating factor is a strong focus on tourist expenditure analysis, poverty alleviation and capacity building.

“One of the key things I do is determine how tourism makes a contribution to people’s lives and to the broader community — how does tourism impact on poverty in South Africa and in Africa?” says Saayman.

The professor established tourism at the then Potchefstroom University (later NWU), first as a subject and then a well-developed programme. Saayman created a School for Tourism and established the country’s leading tourism research entity, Trees.

“Tourism is very multidisciplinary and involves a great deal of co-operation,” says Saayman. This means, for example, co-operation with zoologists and biologists with nature-based tourism. In fact, tourism flows into almost all sectors.

Leisure tourism is the most common type of tourism, with business tourism following second; the latter includes conferences and workshops. Niche tourism markets include medical tourism (travelling for medical treatments), religious tourism (travelling for religious reasons or to experience other religions) and adventure tourism.

Most of Trees’ research is based on primary data, which involves several large surveys per year and an average of 30 000 questionnaires distributed annually. Once data is collected, different economic models are used to see how tourism impacts on that specific area and region.

“Regional economies can be made up of different sectors, from financial services and manufacturing to agriculture and mining,” explains Saayman.

Innovations in tourism research

Saayman has introduced new tourism research concepts into South Africa. One of the biggest contributions is developing a framework for socioeconomic research.

It began with SANParks wanting to investigate how to benefit adjacent communities and contribute to their welfare. These communities didn’t see the benefit of the national parks as they were economically excluded from entering the parks and from managing land there.

This research had never been done before. Saayman led the team that did tourist, community and business surveys. It was the beginning of developing a model that shows the impact of tourism and spend in an area, relating to job creation and quality of life. The purpose is to assess how communities and businesses can benefit from tourism and leisure activities and how this can be improved upon.

The model shows that once tourism infrastructure is developed, it benefits the whole area. For example, tourism brings investment into roads, airports and telecommunications. The work also shows the importance of building capacity using skills development and entrepreneurship.

The framework has been successfully applied in other tourism areas and is now used internationally.

Within the field of events, Saayman introduced the topic of natural events. Internationally, this had never been included in event typology. An example of natural event tourism is the annual flowering in Namaqualand.

According to Saayman, one of the greatest achievements was when Trees, along with European researchers, was recently awarded one of the largest tourism research grants from the European Union to research sustainability in scuba tourism. The grant is in excess of R25-million.

Saayman was also one of the first tourism researchers in South Africa to look at the greening of the industry. Several articles have been published on this topic and work has been done in national parks, the hotel sector, and wine regions.

Contributing to our knowledge, human resources and policy

Saayman is the most published tourism academic in South Africa, with 245 peer-reviewed articles, mostly in international journals. He was the first South African to write tourism textbooks for tertiary level. The professor became the first National Research Foundation (NRF)-rated researcher in tourism in South Africa.

In the early 1990s, Saayman was active in developing tourism as a school subject, introducing it as an industry and a career path. He has published several books for schools and trained teachers across the country.

He has overseen 69 master’s and 45 PhD students, the highest for any tourism academic in the country. Currently Trees has one of the largest tourism research groups in South Africa, with more than 40 PhD students enrolled.

“Tourism is a fairly new field and there is a big gap for qualified people. Those with a PhD will find an academic job quickly in Africa. There are great opportunities and many bursaries available,” says Saayman.

The professor was one of the key researchers in drafting the White Paper on Recreation in the 1990s and is currently working on the updated version. He has also been involved in provincial recreation policies for the North West and Northern Cape.

At an international level, he is a member of the executive committee of the Association of International Experts in Tourism and serves on UNTWO’s panel of experts. He is also on the editorial board of top national and international journals.

Future of tourism

“My vision is for Trees to become an internationally-recognised centre of excellence,” says Saayman. “The ultimate goal is to alleviate poverty through tourism and improve people’s quality of life.” Currently the entity has the largest number of professors in tourism in the country and the highest number of NRF-rated researchers.

Saayman says there is much opportunity in tourism: “We are only scratching the surface. Consider areas such as agri-tourism. Farms have so much more to offer than commercial farming activities.”

Consider the wine route in the Western Cape as an example, with spas, festivals and weddings. There are farms with history and heritage, plus the natural setting lends itself to adventure tourism. It’s development just waiting to happen.