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Language Skills & Tourism

Tourism is the only sector that can alleviate the challenges of unemployment, but South Africans must learn as many international languages as possible, and that starts at school level.

By Unathi Henama.

I have noted before that tourism is the only sector that can alleviate the immediate challenges of more than 27% unemployment and create the jobs that will restore human dignity to the majority of our citizens.

South Africa remains a dream deferred if the majority of its citizens are faced by the daily reality of poverty, unemployment and inequality. Another worrying factor is that South Africans have low levels of patriotism, maybe because of our divided past and that we are still in the infancy of national state building. What always comes as a shock is our ability to be the worst advertisers of the most beautiful country in the world. South Africans ability to talk bad about their country is second to none and this has a knock on effect on tourism. We don’t have pride as citizens, which is an important ingredient in the tourist experience when engaging with locals.

Anyway back to the issue of language skill, its imperative that South Africans learn as many international languages as possible. This would of great benefit to the citizens of the country as this would open up employment opportunities in tourism domestically and in other countries. The reason is linked to the fact that many tourist companies are compelled to hire foreign labour because of proficiency in several international languages such as French, German, Portuguese, and Spanish. Increasingly the emergence of Chinese outbound tourism, means that Mandarin is a language of interest.

South Africa as a former British colony has great English proficiency which has always been a strong point when the Tourism White Paper was finalised in 1996. A glance at the major international inbound markets indicates that UK, USA, Germany, France and China when one looks at tourists statistics. In as much as the UK and USA can be English proficient, they are experiencing demographic changes that mean that they can’t be regarded as purely English speaking markets. Visit Florida Miami and you will get an idea of how much Spanish has become the norm rather than the exception.

The National Tourism Sector Strategy (NTSS) creates a vision that South Africa must be in the top 20 tourism destinations by 2020, which is just around the corner. So now what is to be done.

The institutional arrangements where the destiny of the tourism industry is not defined by one department is a challenge, which reflects the cross-cutting and complex nature of a tourism.

For example, Mauritius seeking to use tourism as the number one economic sector took a decision to ensure that each learner at school learns three language, French, English and Creole, the local language. This has meant that Mauritius is able to cater for the two prominent international languages and this has a knock-on effect on the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) industry. Mauritius is able to present a more cost effective call centre product because each potential employee can speak both English and French, which is not the case in South Africa.

As many French speaking Africans increasingly come to experience the beauty of South Africa, their service experience is dampened by the low levels of French proficiency. Tourism companies in the pursuit of French speaking employees, are then forced to hire foreign labour. This foreign labour then leads to economic leakage which limits the developmental potential and ability of the tourism industry as they send remittances to their home countries.

This is the unspoken reality of tourism employment, tourists want to be served in their own language. Now South Africa must take a decision, whether it will seek to devise plans to increase international language teaching in the schooling system.

If international language training is able to reduce unemployment, poverty and inequality, then let’s support it. This is part of the broader conversation we should be having as part of the Tourism Red Tape Initiative (TRTI), which seeks to create an institutional framework that will identify across all government departments, the stumbling blocks stifling the growth of the tourism to create jobs and drive the economy.

unathi-henama  Language Skills & Tourism Unathi HenamaAbout the Author: Unathi Sonwabile Henama teaches tourism at the Department of Tourism Management at the Tshwane University of Technology. The views expressed in this article are private. Unathi can be contacted via email at: HenamaUS@tut.ac.za or by calling: +27 (0)12 382 5507.