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Opinion: Lisa Sheard – A Socio-economic Case for Tourism

Lisa Sheard, the Executive Director of Kruger Lowveld Tourism makes some highly relevant observations in her opinion piece on a socio-economic case for tourism in the Kruger Lowveld / Ehlanzeni region and for South Africa:

The CEO of South African Tourism, Sisa Ntshona, stated in an article in the Beeld newspaper on 4 December 2016, that tourism hasn’t realised a fraction of its potential in South Africa because the government still doesn’t believe in it.

He said that government’s prevailing view of tourism is that it is still regarded as a largely white industry, affecting and largely benefiting white people; that the case for tourism has not been made in South Africa, and that most people still perceive it as an elitist thing that is done only by wealthy (white) people.

This view has to change, as there’s no doubt that the value of tourism when it comes to boosting South Africa’s economy, is enormous.

Mmatšatši Ramawela, the Tourism Business Council of SA’s CEO, has been quoted in the travel media, stating, “Operation Phakisa is a national government initiative to fast-track the implementation of solutions to critical development issues.  The tourism sector should have its own similar initiative because tourism is the only sector that has shown growth globally for six consecutive years.”

Interestingly, readers were asked if they thought tourism was adequately recognised for its contribution to the economy. A staggering 84% said no. This begs the question, “Why is the tourism sector perceived to not be recognised for its contribution to the economy?”

Is it because tourism is not yet a major contributor to the economy? Perhaps it’s because tourism’s growth and growth potential is not clearly understood, or because many people – including industry players, officials and politicians – have not developed a deep understanding of how the tourism sector can contribute to the South African economy.

Whilst it could be a combination of the above, I think it’s because the tourism sector is not persuasive enough in building its own socio-economic case. The promotion of the tourism sector as a national and local development priority is a no-brainer and it seems that Ntshona agrees.

While not all areas of the country have existing or potential comparative advantages in tourism, there are several that do and these need to be promoted.  In the Kruger Lowveld region (which essentially follows the boundaries of the Ehlanzeni District Municipality), there are many existing and potential advantages that need to be pursued and further developed, but require a cognitive shift in thinking and understanding by all stakeholders. Hence we need to build the socio-economic case for tourism in South Africa and this region.

Tourism can meet and exceed socio-economic goals

Looking at the United Nations World Tourism Organisation’s 2015 Tourism Highlights Report it’s clear that tourism can meet and exceed Kruger Lowveld / Ehlanzeni’s socio-economic goals.

World travel keeps growing. According to the report, the number of international tourist arrivals (overnight visitors) in 2015 increased by 4.6% to 1186 million worldwide, an increase of 52 million from the previous year. This was the sixth consecutive year of above-average growth in international tourism, following the 2009 global economic crisis.

In addition, international tourism receipts grew by 4.4% in real terms (taking into account exchange rate fluctuations and inflation) with total earnings in the destinations estimated at US$ 1260 billion worldwide in 2015 (euro 1136 billion).

According to the report, Africa welcomed 53 million international tourists and earned US$ 33 billion in international tourism receipts, with South Africa being the second most popular destination in Africa (16.7% of Africa’s arrivals) after Morocco (19% of Africa’s arrivals).

UNWTO’s long-term forecast report, Tourism Towards 2030, states that international tourist arrivals worldwide are expected to increase by 3.3% a year and to reach 1.8 billion by 2030. In addition, arrivals in emerging destinations (+4.4% a year) are expected to increase at twice the rate of those in advanced economies (+2.2% a year).

Despite a blip in 2015 (largely due to new visa regulations), South Africa’s foreign tourism has been on an upward trajectory, with 2016 final figures looking promising in terms of overcoming the 2015 challenges. Foreign arrivals grew from 8.34 million in 2011 to 8.9 million in 2015; tourism contribution to the gross domestic product grew from R84-billion to R118.9-billion over the same time period and direct employment grew from 4.4% to 4.5%.

What can tourism do for the economy?

Looking at the above statistics it’s clear that tourism:

·         Can create jobs, lots of them!

There is little in the tourism sector, specifically the hospitality subsector, that can be mechanised. As the sector is promoted and grows, more jobs will be created. A machine can’t replace a waiter delivering a meal or give a tourist a warm welcome.  Currently, for every 12 foreign visitors, one direct job is created in the South African tourism sector.  Despite disruptive technology (e.g. Air B&B) and online booking platforms replacing some reservations functions, in general, tourism is a labour-absorbing sector of our economy.

·         Tourism is sustainable and can be very inclusive

Unlike industries such as mining, tourism is neither extractive nor exploitative – in terms of the environment or labour. Because so many tourism activities are inextricably linked to our natural endowments such as fauna and flora, wildlife, etc., there is obvious appreciation for the need of the sector to be sustainable. Work in the tourism sector is not dangerous (except perhaps for extreme adventure guides) and is governed by minimum wage determinations. Other types of tourism, e.g. cultural and heritage tourism are also inclusive of communities, especially in rural areas. Much work is being done to include rural communities as beneficiaries of tourism. In other words, the benefits of tourism can be deep and far reaching.

·         Tourism is accessible

The tourism sector is perfectly suited to the current profile of our labour force. Because it is labour intensive right down to the lowest levels and because of the elongated/flat, triangular shape of our labour force, people with lesser formal skills are vital to the day-to-day running of the tourism sector.  There are many opportunities for people without formal and/or tertiary qualifications, from housekeepers and waiters to information officers, site guides, drivers and kitchen assistants.  The key requirements are an ability to learn, a good attitude, people skills and customer focus – most of these ingredients are intrinsic, as opposed to learned skills.  While moving up the ladder is not always easy, much progress can be made “on the job” by people who have the above-mentioned qualities, the willingness to harness further training and some ambition.

·         Barriers to entry into the tourism sector are relatively low

Unlike some professions where formal professional qualifications are a prerequisite to gaining access into a sector, tourism does not have the same barriers to entry.  Most tourism professionals start somewhere near the bottom of the ladder and work their way up.  Similarly, many tourism businesses start with one vehicle or a few rooms. While there is no doubt that there is a need to develop management capacity in the sector, much can be done through the chain of practical learning. Today there is also more access to funding for tourism businesses, although not yet enough and it’s not focussed properly.

·         There is no current over concentration of economic power in the tourism sector and this is unlikely to change

While there are some relatively large tourism enterprises and companies, there are not many that are listed and only a few are overly dominant.  Moreover, the very nature of the sector is such that demand for tourism product is unlikely to require corporate or large company ownership.  Because tourism has become more about “experiences” and “personalities”, it is often the small establishment or tour operator that is chosen above a large company to deliver the authentic and/or innovative experiences that modern travellers seek.

·         Tourism encourages entrepreneurship and small business

As per the above, there is plenty of space for entrepreneurs and small businesses in the tourism sector.  Small businesses are often preferred over large ones in terms of delivering the experiential products that tourists want. Furthermore, family businesses also feature often as preferred suppliers due to the authentic and face-to-face experiences that they offer tourists.  In a recent survey undertaken by Kruger Lowveld Tourism, preliminary results suggest that about 70% of the tourist plant in the Kruger Lowveld / Ehlanzeni region is a so-called “family business”.  So for successful future entrants into the industry, the opportunity to create a “family business” exists. This reflects often unrecognised, long-term benefits of intergenerational employment and wealth transfer.

·         The multiplier effects of tourism can be significant

Just outside the fuzzy borders of what constitutes the formal tourism sector are a range of other economic activities that develop around the sector.  In rural areas, such as ours, the potential for subsistence agriculture and “market gardening” to supply into the hospitality subsector is an example of real economic opportunity. The outsourcing of laundries, gardening and landscaping services, repairs and maintenance, waste removal and recycling – to name a few – are real economic activities available to people on the fringes, thereby bringing them into the mainstream.  Of course, there is the local petrol station, supermarket or spaza shop, crafter, musician and artist that can also reap economic benefits from the tourism sector.

·         Tourism encourages “pride of place”

An important element for self, community, region, province and nation, pride of place is an inspirational concept that elevates the human soul. If you have a visitor to your home, what do you do?  You clean up, pull out your best and put everyone on their best behaviour.  And so it is at a community, regional, provincial and national level. Pride of place will ensure that the water will run, the streets will be clean, signage will be clear, the street lights will work, there will be uninterrupted electricity supply, the clinics will operate effectively, safety and security of communities will be prioritised, etc. This brings service delivery right down to its most obvious and basic level and encourages all authorities at all levels to compete to be the best, both for its citizens and its visitors.

·         Tourism is “woman full”

The tourism sector is one in which women excel and dominate (I think!) and although I don’t have any figures to back this up, I would suggest that there are more women working in the sector than men.  This goes a long way towards rectifying the gender bias of our economy and is particularly relevant to the rural economy – the place from which Kruger Lowveld / Ehlanzeni’s tourism growth is likely to come.

·         Tourism breaks down many barriers and promotes social cohesion

Barriers, be they cultural, historical, religious, racial or other are broken down by the passage of meeting people from different places, who speak different languages, who have different beliefs and customs and who simply look different.  Even if tourism sector participants don’t have the opportunity or means to travel themselves, they will, through their work, engage with different people. Domestic and international tourism facilitates this, opens minds to the fact that we are not all the same, reduces the possibility of xenophobia and promotes engagement and sharing in a non-threatening environment.

·         Tourism brings the world to your doorstep

In a country like South Africa and a region such as Kruger Lowveld / Ehlanzeni, many of our people do not have the opportunity or means to travel, either locally or internationally. For those that are in or close to the tourism sector, there is a reasonably good chance that they will benefit from engagements with tourists from other parts of the country and world.  Tourism thus promotes a certain “worldliness” and a closer proximity to “globalisation” – a phenomenon that we cannot escape – that people might otherwise not have access to.  This encourages tolerance, a quest for knowledge, greater sophistication and an understanding of how the world works.

·         Tourism instils a good and honest work ethic – a rewarding sector for hard working people

Tourism is hard work, with long hours and is definitely not elitist!  It will not make you rich or famous quickly, but it can be very rewarding. It is more “real” than many other careers because personal results reflect the effort and time you put in. It is part of the ancient tradition of hospitality and care. It has been around for centuries, perhaps in a different form and shape to what we understand today.  The sector is all about people – those who work hard to give others satisfaction, pleasure and unique experiences. It is a place where human relationships are made and kept, a sector that calls on people with integrity and stamina. Those that are involved in it and who understand it deeply will also recognise its ability to teach the next generation good, enduring and universal values, while at the same time, recognise the imperative to use modern techniques for the supply of that service and care.

Elevating the tourism sector to fulfil its socio-economic potential

Here are five simple things we can do to elevate Kruger Lowveld / Ehlanzeni’s socio-economic potential:

  1. Prioritise the sector as a future export income earner, tax generator and employment creator.
  2. Increase resources to affecting tourism development, marketing and benefits, and focus less on staffing, regulation and administration.
  3. Benchmark to see what the most successful tourism destinations in the world do and copying or out-manoeuvre them.
  4. Activate the Regional Tourism Organisation Framework document (a specific “rules of engagement” guideline developed between Kruger Lowveld and the Ehlanzeni District Municipality) through more meaningful interaction between the public and private sectors. Understanding our respective roles to realise what tourism can do for our region and communities. Government must facilitate, private sector must do. Less talking and more doing. Fewer talk shops and long strategy documents. More action plans and deliverables with accountability. Elevating this region means consolidating what we have and creating new and innovative tourism experiences and attractions. New businesses and more employment will follow.
  5. Involve the people and attract them to the sector through better information and more workable projects on the ground. The benefits need to be felt.

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