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 Tourism sparkles in the SA economic gloom

 

 Through the storm clouds of a distressed economy, the South African tourism industry stands out as a ray of sunshine, says Anton Roelofse, regional general manager of Business Partners Limited, who points to a 12% year-on-year growth of overseas visitors in the second quarter of this year compared to the same period the year before.

The latest figures from Stats SA, which do not include road travellers from other African countries, show an especially significant increase in travellers from the US. Visitor numbers from most other countries are also up or steady, apart from a slight decline in tourists from India and China.

Roelofse believes that the continued increase in overseas tourism arrivals is driven by two factors. First, the exchange rates keep the South African tourism experience very affordable, and second, South Africa is a desirable destination for Millennials who are now starting to strap on their backpacks to see the world.

South Africa’s good travel infrastructure, including relatively good roads and small-airport network to the remotest corners of the country, keeps the tourists coming.

While entrepreneurs in the tourism sector seem to be slightly better off than those in the rest of the South African economy, Roelofse says there are clear trends which tourism operators must heed in order to stay ahead and grow the sector even further.

Increasing numbers of tourists are seeking out experience, adventure and activities rather than sightseeing or spending days at the side of a pool, says Roelofse.

This provides an opportunity to any tourism operation to link to local events that can draw tourists, and can even help to lessen the annual winter tourism dip.

The extent of that dip is clear in the latest figures - overseas arrivals dropped off no less than 27% between the first quarter of the year and the second, says Roelofse, who believes that more can be done to market South African winter attractions.

The seasonal fluctuation will always be there, but it could be decreased by promoting winter-specific events such as whale watching and the advantages of winter game viewing when the grass is shorter and temperatures more moderate in regions such as the Lowveld.

Roelofse says there is no doubt that the recent drought has had a negative impact on tourism, especially Western Cape adventure tourism operations that depend on water levels. The Berg River Canoe Marathon has been shortened and the West Coast’s flower season has been disappointing.

This makes the 12% annual tourism growth even more remarkable, but Roelofse says local tourism operations will have to think about how to handle the drought with their clients. Tourists don’t want to shower less, and covered swimming pools are not enticing, making it a sensitive issue for tourism operators to grapple with.

A relevant trend which tourism businesses can tap into is that of “ethical” or “responsible” tourism. The modern tourist is much more aware of the socio-economic and environmental impact of their travels, and increasingly tourism businesses can make their clients feel good by showing them how their spending empowers communities and socio-economic causes. It is in this context that tourists can be informed about the drought and water shortages, and how they can help by conserving water during their visit.

The connected world has radically changed the information flow to tourists and all tourist operations have had to adapt to it, says Roelofse. Wi-fi connectivity for tourism clients is no longer a nice-to-have, it is an essential part of tourism services.

Websites and information systems such as Trip Advisor have given the tourist immediate access and insight into any tourism business. This means that tourism operations have to manage their online presence very diligently. Don’t hesitate to ask a satisfied tourist to post a review, and be ready with an immediate and sympathetic reply if you get a bad review, says Roelofse.

Although South Africa has, perhaps surprisingly, developed a reputation as a less-troubled corner of the world, crime remains a concern and is an issue that must be dealt with sensitively by tourism entrepreneurs in their interaction with their clients.

Another trend that tourist operators must heed by adapting their menus and activities is the move towards healthier lifestyles, says Roelofse.

He believes that the tourism sector can grow even faster if South Africa’s tourism entrepreneurs keep providing good service, and offering authentic local experiences rather than passive sights and mere places to stay.

Even though business tourism is understandably low because of the sluggish economy - only 4,5% of overseas arrivals in the last quarter were business people - they still represent a growth opportunity for the sector. Local businesses that latch onto business events to offer a bit of leisure before and after tap into a rich seam, and boost the sector as a whole.

For all the growth of overseas tourism and the lacklustre economy, Roelofse says the last thing that tourism businesses should do is to take their eye of the potential of domestic tourism. The weak rand and economic pressure has put paid to many an overseas trip of wealthier South Africans, who now look to local destinations for their holidays.

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