Time for SONA to map out ‘the how’ for tourism


One-liners and sweeping statements about the importance of tourism to the South African economy are not enough for the 2020 SONA. While the sector is undoubtedly one of the major contributors to the development of the economy, the Tourism Fund doesn’t have a lot of money in its coffers. It is time to rethink and map out a plan to catch the tourism train before it leaves the station. Now is the time for focus, funds and fast action to make a real difference, and we need both SONA and the upcoming Budget Speech to address concrete steps head-on, to fast-track tourism.

The auspicious target set by government in SONA 2019 to raise tourism numbers to 21 million per annum by 2030 (6% compound growth per annum), has laid down the gauntlet. In reality, tourism in South Africa is experiencing slippage at a point in time when developing countries are showing growth and progress in this sector. In comparison, the latest Stats SA tourism and migration figures reflect a 2.3% decline up to November 2019. South Africa lost 615,000 overseas and African tourists last year alone. Of these, 215,000 tourist losses were due to the year-to-date decline.

If SA’s growth had traced the conservative average growth achieved by African countries in 2019, we should have attracted an additional 400,000 tourists. The figure would have been even higher still if we had achieved our intended goal of 6% growth as set out in SONA 2019.

The fact is that 615,000 people chose another destination over a visit to South Africa. Conservatively, this loss of tourists carries an estimated direct spend of over R5 billion to our economy, putting much needed South African jobs in jeopardy. This should be all the evidence we need to make sure that we work hard to reclaim our status.

We are at a point in SA where we must face our realities with solutions, and that includes working with new challenges. For instance, while the scrapping of the unabridged birth certificates was a positive amendment, coronavirus will affect the number of outbound Chinese tourists visiting SA this year – and China is a very important source of tourism to our country. But these global catastrophes come from left field, and can affect any market at any time. For this reason, when it comes to tourism we can’t rely on only a few target markets.

There is a lot riding on the amount of investment and the depth of resolve required by South Africa to significantly impact the value chain in a way that will positively change the narrative. While we have issues of safety and security, infrastructure, and the challenges of Eskom and SAA, there is a lot going for South Africa. With more than 51,945 spectators at the Federer/Nadal charity match in Cape Town this weekend, the country set a new world record for the largest attendance at a tennis match. Without question this was an experience that created incredible images for those who were there, even more importantly; it’s the kind of event that makes South Africans proud as a nation, we need more of this to turbo-boost our reputation as a destination.

Big initiatives make a real difference

It’s time to flesh out the broad goals. The industry would like to hear the government’s take on the ‘how’ at SONA, not just paying lip-service to the importance of tourism. Unlocking the potential in tourism will take significant investment: not just financially – although this is of key importance – we also need to see investment in a more concrete approach to mapping out a tactical strategy from top down.

We should be seeing ministries come together in the days after SONA: the police, home affairs, labour, public enterprises, economic development, environment, health, education, communications, tourism and others need to put their heads together and make this happen. Everything they put their minds to must be for the benefit of the country as a whole, and included in this should be one more question: how do we support the growth of both foreign and domestic tourism?