/ 30 May 2024

South Africa’s tourism potential yet to be harnessed

Cape Agulhas: Point Where Atlantic And Indian Oceans Meet In South Africa
To reach pre-pandemic levels and beyond, South African tourism will have to not only address the volume of visitors but also their spending patterns and overall experience. (Photo by Murat Ozgur Guvendik/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Although there is a positive trend of an increase in the number of tourists arriving in South Africa year-on-year since the pandemic, there is still much to be done for those visits to translate into economic gains for South Africans.

Last year, South Africa received 8.5 million, an increase from the 7.3 million non-resident visitors (same-day visitors and tourists) in 2022, and not too far from the 14.8 million non-resident visitors before the pandemic in 2019, as highlighted by the 2022 census report. These figures plummeted to 2.3 million in 2021 during the lockdown and had devastating economic repercussions for many businesses in travel and tourism. 

The visa waiver enabling free travel between African countries has seen an increase in visitors from Ghana and Kenya, with more countries said to grow the list, says President Cyril Rampahosa. 

While the number of arrivals paints a picture of progress, the amount of money spent by tourists and visitors remains lower compared to pre-pandemic. In 2019, tourists and visitors spent R121.5 billion, compared to the lower R71.1 billion reported in 2022. The amount of money spent by tourists remains significantly lower according to the latest Census report. The department of tourism recently announced that the first quarter of 2023 reached R25.3 billion, which is alleged to be 143.9% more than the first quarter of 2022, still much lower than 2019.  

The South African tourism sector accounts for 3.7% of the GDP, which surpasses the contributions from agriculture, construction, and utilities (gas, electricity, and water supply). This sector’s potential is underscored by the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) report, which suggests that travel and tourism could inject $168 billion into Africa’s economy and create 16 million jobs. But what will it take for the tourism industry to not only recover but also fully tap into its potential, which was already underused before the pandemic?

To reach pre-pandemic levels and beyond, South African tourism will have to not only address the volume of visitors but also their spending patterns and overall experience. The long-term growth of tourism in South Africa depends on consistent quality improvements and addressing systemic issues such as infrastructure deficiencies, safety concerns, and political stability.

The Africa Travel Indaba, hosted at the Durban ICC from 13 to 16 May 2024 is an annual event that brings major travel and tourism stakeholders with hopes of encouraging business to international buyers. Some of the attendees of the event include hotel groups, transportation services, travel agencies, tourism boards, game lodges and others. With 1,100 buyers from 56 countries and 1,200 exhibitors from 26 African countries in attendance, the Africa Travel Indaba alone is said to contribute more than R1.2 billion to the economy. 

South African tourism featured 120 small, medium and micro enterprises at the Hidden Gems stands, providing local businesses with a platform to attract new business opportunities as well as speed marketing sessions that provided the SMMEs with a platform to showcase their products and attract buyers.

Tourism Minister Patricia de Lille spoke about the R1.2 billion Tourism Equity Fund launched last year as part of the Tourism Sector Master Plan, aimed at supporting local SMMEs to recover from the pandemic and grow to create more jobs. Deputy Minister Fish Mahlalela mentioned the Green Tourism Incentive Programme which offers grants to SMMEs for improving water and energy supplies which is said to have assisted over 150 businesses. While these are steps in the right direction, they require accountability and rigorous follow-ups and training to ensure that the support is truly contributing towards the sustainability of the SMMEs and equipping them to deliver world class products and services. The R1.2 billion Tourism Equity Fund represents a substantial investment that could lead to more jobs, but its effectiveness will depend on transparent and efficient implementation.

Our love for dance, and music continues to dazzle the world through TikTok with one hit song and dance challenge after another. The Amapiano magic was at work during the opening party, when foreign visitors danced to the sound. The rise of Amapiano presents an opportunity for South African arts and culture to attract visitors, increase revenue and create jobs. But leveraging cultural elements for tourism should be part of a broader strategy that includes improving on-ground experiences, ensuring visitor safety, and enhancing infrastructure. Over-reliance on cultural phenomena can also risk overshadowing necessary structural improvements such as electricity, that affects the tourism sector.

In various panel discussions ranging from strategic collaborations and partnerships, to young people and social media, one thing remains prominent: South Africa has yet to harness the power of media to showcase South Africa as a top destination to the world. Chief marketing officer at South African Tourism, Thembisile Sehloho, referred to how HBO’s holiday-focused series, White Lotus, had hugely increased visitors to Thailand. He added: “America used film and music to position their country as the best place to be. We can learn from that.” 

An impressive feature of the Africa Travel Indaba was the integration of mobile application technology and some destinations using virtual reality. The event mobile application features a chatbot, the programme, floor plan navigation and lists of speakers, a news feed, attendees, sponsors and exhibitors with direct messaging options. The app also facilitates meetings by matching two people with a confirmed time slot and venue at the click of a button. It even populates a calendar with the delegates’ contact details ahead of the event. 

A few companies used cutting-edge technologies to showcase their products.The South African National Parks’ escape room featured 360-degree live views from several national parks through VR glasses. This immersive experience provided a deeper appreciation of the bush, far beyond what photographs could convey. 

The integration of mobile applications and virtual reality at events like the Africa Travel Indaba showcases South Africa’s technological advancement. But the practical application of these technologies should extend beyond events to enhance everyday tourism experiences. Technologies like virtual reality, mobile apps and artificial intelligence can play a significant role in marketing destinations and engaging with customers but they should be part of a broader strategy that includes the necessary physical infrastructure needed to make these widely available and used beyond the annual Africa Travel Indaba.

Social media also plays a crucial role in promoting tourism and creating job opportunities. The stories of Michael and Acacia Monk, who travel in their van and document their journeys on their platform Yeti.The.Van, and Katchie Nzama, who solo travelled across Africa using public transport and eventually became a host on SABC’s Come Again, illustrate the power of social media in transforming travel into viable businesses and jobs. These individuals have leveraged their social media followings to secure brand endorsements, generating income and gaining the freedom to travel indefinitely. Their success stories highlight how social media can serve as a powerful marketing tool, attracting global attention to South Africa’s unique travel experiences. 

By showcasing their adventures and the beauty of South Africa, these influencers help to market the country as a must-visit destination. Additionally, the need for skilled individuals to manage digital marketing, social media campaigns, and technology-driven tourism services can further expand employment prospects.

South Africa’s position as a leading travel and tourism economy in Africa is an achievement worth noting, but it should not obscure the critical challenges that lie ahead. The country must focus on sustainable growth, continuous investment in infrastructure, and addressing systemic issues to ensure long-term success in the tourism sector. The path to recovery and growth requires a balanced approach that combines immediate gains with long-term strategic planning.

Welcome Mandla Lishivha is a journalist and author of Boy On the Run. To learn more about him, visit welcomemandla.com