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Tourism is a critical key driver of economic growth – but we must stop scoring own goals

South Africa is a marketer’s dream. But for tourism to be the driver of economic growth, we need to ensure safe and reliable transport. Crime needs urgent attention as do our energy crisis, water shortages, social uncertainty and immigration frameworks.

Tourism is an intricately integrated system of many actors who rely on each other. It is made up of important value chains in the local economy, from tour operators and transport service providers to entertainment and shopping, as well as leisure and recreation, among others.

It is a sector that relies on the efficient movement and interaction of people and value chains. The tourism industry is the backbone of economic activity in the country as it offers more than just a bed and breakfast.

Globally, many countries consider tourism a key force for sustainable social and economic development. In many countries, the tourism industry is an important source for creating employment opportunities and generating income in both the formal and informal sectors.

In South Africa, however, tourism is mostly viewed as a leisure sector, and only some understand the business of tourism as far as its impact on the economy and employment is concerned.

The tourism sector, however, has and continues to play an important role in the South African economy. According to Statistics South Africa, in 2019 it contributed 3.7% to national GDP, followed by 2.1% to the GDP in 2020, and 2.3% of GDP in 2021. Its slowdown came in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, which brought about slow global economic growth.

At the same time, geopolitical tensions have also resulted in sustained sizeable losses in the global tourism sector. Similarly, in South Africa, the abrupt halt of travel and tourism activity during the lockdowns crippled local tourism businesses — many of which are small and medium-sized enterprises.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Mother of a recovery – Cape Town wows the world as tourism numbers surge past pre-pandemic levels

As a country that is battling to stimulate economic growth and create jobs, we ought to be looking at ways to boost tourism and reposition the sector to be the driver of economic growth.

Economic contribution

There are barely any major requirements for entry into the tourism sector. The national tourism ecosystem offers new opportunities for innovative and forward-looking individuals and groups to get into business. The Tourism Department, in partnership with the Tourism Business Council of South Africa (TBCSA) and other stakeholders, have support programmes in place for new entrants into the market, because there is a recognition for good support, training and funding opportunities.

But in order for tourism to be the driver of economic growth, we ought to have some strong foundations. Different organisations and actors in the public and private sectors need to be in alignment for this common purpose.

We need to ensure that South Africa’s road infrastructure is world-class. Reliable transportation to and from the country is crucial, and so are safe and reliable transport modes. The recent resurrection of the local rail system bodes well for the future as more options become available for our visitors.

South Africa’s energy crisis, water shortages, social uncertainty, ageing infrastructure and immigration frameworks need urgent attention if the sector is to meet its goal of securing 15.6-million arrivals to the country by 2030.

South Africa is a marketer’s dream. It is a top tourism destination that has plenty to offer in terms of its natural and cultural heritage, as well as its diversity of cultures, people, customs, and cuisines.

Visitors to our country get to be part of the local surroundings by walking and staying in our communities. They experience the culture and the people while exploring historical and cultural sites. They swim at the same beaches as the locals, they get to drink beer at the local taverns and fully immerse themselves in the local culture.

From the restaurants they patronise to the transportation they use to get around, the roads they drive on, and the souvenir sellers they haggle with for discounts — they contribute immensely to the growth of the local tourism ecosystem.

And as we reflect on the gains made in the last 30 years of democracy, it is also an opportunity to acknowledge the losses and the failures of the last three decades.

A sustainable future

The public sector is an important partner in the tourism ecosystem. Without the legislative authorities, the tourism sector would struggle to advance and play a meaningful role in building society. Infrastructure, security, energy, municipal services and immigration frameworks require collaboration with the local authorities. The pandemic has provided an opportunity to rebuild the sector, with sustainability and economic reform in mind.

In order for the tourism sector to drive growth, government has to create an enabling environment through policies that allow for the ease of operation in the sector. Over the past few years, the Department of Home Affairs has been tightening immigration laws in order to protect South Africa and to ensure that the people who enter the country are those who are authorised to do so.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Turning tourism upside down — a future where tourists have to qualify to visit other countries

Ongoing efforts to implement the e-visa system and expanding visa waivers stand our industry and the country in good stead. We have to make it easy for international tourists to visit South Africa without needing to apply for a visa through an embassy or consulate.

In his 2024 State of the Nation Address, President Cyril Ramaphosa highlighted the importance of a visa recognition system which would allow tourists to enter South Africa if they have a valid visa from a limited number of countries with strong security controls.

As a country, we need to ensure that our e-visa system and adjudication are done faster than is happening now. We have an opportunity through faster processing of visas and a visa recognition system to attract more tourists from China and India. By doing so, we will create much-needed jobs within the tourism industry.

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As a country that is seeking new ways to stimulate economic growth, the SME sector continues to provide solutions for that expansion. Small businesses play a significant role across the overall tourism value chain. In order for them to be sustainable and create jobs, they need to operate in safe communities — so as a country, we need to find new ways to fight crime and ensure visitors’ safety.

Although the power crisis has led many businesses to find innovative solutions, it has been a costly exercise for others who were not insulated from the shock of the energy crisis. Stabilising the power grid and the introduction of alternative power has never been more important in our country’s history.

Although South Africa is a water-scarce country, local authorities ought to do more in terms of infrastructure maintenance. Partners in the private sector and other organisations are waiting for many solutions to those challenges. All it takes is political will and a firm hand on the tiller.

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A developing nation like South Africa also stands to benefit from the foreign exchange that tourism brings. As the country prepares to go to the polls, the TBCSA continues to lobby and encourage partners in the political space and the public and private sectors to consider creating a policy environment that is conducive to economic growth and the ever-evolving business needs of the tourism industry.

Tourism touches on every sector of the economy. Many of the sectors within the tourism ecosystem depend on the other industries and provide enormous opportunities for growth. Food producers benefit from orders from hotel groups and other accommodation and event venues. The auto sector provides the minibus taxis, buses and other modes of transport used in the sector.

There are many other examples of ways in which other sectors are direct beneficiaries of a functional tourism network. The global tourism space is extremely competitive.

And we have the mammoth task of constantly finding innovative ways to get more people to visit South Africa — we cannot afford to score policy own goals that counter those efforts. DM

Original article can be viewed here