SA tourism industry’s decade of dashed hopes

‘Tourism is South Africa’s new gold’. This is a marketing tagline people in the industry will remember well as it became quite popular ahead of the 2010 Fifa World Cup ten years ago.

Back then, the country was on a high.

Despite not getting as many international visitors as we would have liked during the soccer spectacular (with the world economy just recovering from the global financial crisis of 2008/09), many leaders in the tourism industry were excited at the prospect of leveraging off one of the biggest international events to significantly grow foreign tourism arrivals to the country.

Around 2010 there was even talk of South Africa becoming one of the “top 20 tourism destinations in the world by 2020”.

While it did not become an official government target, Tourism Minister at the time, Marthinus van Schalkwyk, even touted the country surpassing the 20 million international visitors mark by 2020.

Industry leaders, like former Tourism Business Council of SA (TBCSA) CEO Mmatsatsi Ramawela and acting Brand South Africa CEO, Paul Bannister, envisioned South Africa using the World Cup to boost its profile and tourism growth like Barcelona had done for Spain and Sydney for Australia following the hosting of the Olympic Games in 1992 and 2000.

Bannister, a marketing heavyweight who was behind the development of the welcome South Africa flag logo, even believed at the time that the country should not lose momentum and should have bid for the 2011 Rugby World Cup and 2020 Olympic Games.

In hindsight, the latter would have been a predicament for South Africa now, had Durban (which was punted at the time) bid against Tokyo, considering the global chaos the Covid-19 pandemic has caused. Japan’s 2020 Olympics has now been moved to next year.

But, the argument by Bannister and company more than a decade ago, was that the country had already invested in new stadia and tourism infrastructure, such as the upgrades of the major international airports. The stadium in Durban even accommodates space for an athletics track.

It is worth noting, that Durban bid and won hosting rights for the 2022 Commonwealth Games. But, perhaps highlighting the deteriorated state of South Africa during the “lost ten years” under Jacob Zuma’s presidency, the country gave up the hosting rights during this time, after government was not able to commit to financial guarantees.

Coming back to tourism, South Africa lost a huge opportunity here over the last ten years. We have had a few “stop starts”.

We did not take advantage of the 2010 Fifa World Cup enough, especially post the event, to become a top 20 tourism destination.

There was some hope in 2009, when the Zuma presidency established tourism as a stand-alone department under Van Schalkwyk. But by 2014, Van Schalkwyk – the country’s most experienced Tourism Minister (he was in charge of the previous Environmental Affairs and Tourism Department since 2004) and who was being considered for a international tourism position, was axed in favour of Derek Hanekom.

Van Schalkwyk is now South Africa’s ambassador to Australia.

Meanwhile, Hanekom made some headway by building closer relationships with industry bodies such as the SA Tourism Services Association (Satsa) and TBCSA during the stop-start stints as Tourism Minister since 2014. The national agency, South African Tourism, also seemed to be on the right track, with the appointment of Sisa Ntshona as CEO.

But, then came perhaps one of the worse pieces of legislation that have dealt a major blow to international tourism to South Africa since 2015. The Home Affairs Department’s rules around unabridged birth certificates for minors travelling to the country.

Read: Tourism wins: Govt to abolish unabridged birth certificate rules 

Former Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba, who was a strong backer of Zuma at the time, took on Hanekom in enforcing the legislation. Hanekom, did not last long and was fired by Zuma in 2017 amid political battles within the ANC.

Hanekom made a brief comeback in the portfolio when Cyril Ramaphosa became president in 2018. A Ramaphosa backer, he also no doubt played a key role in influencing government’s eventual U-turn on the disastrous unabridged birth certificate rules late last year.

The impact of the legislation could be seen in the more than 11% decline in international tourist arrivals to South Africa in 2019, down from 10.47 million in 2018 to 9.25 million last year.

It followed a 2% decline in 2018. However, the drought in Cape Town and the perennial issue around crime, and its impact on destination South Africa, would have also been contributing factors.

Read: SA’s international tourist arrivals ‘not looking good’

To put the 9.25 million international tourist arrivals figure into perspective, it’s worth noting that in 2010 the country saw just over 8 million arrivals. We are nowhere near Van Schalkwyk’s dreams of 20 million, however, last year the industry set a new goal of targeting 21 million arrivals by 2030.

Current Tourism Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane has only been in the role for just over a year, after being appointed to the post following the 2019 national elections in May.

One could say it has been a baptism of fire, having to deal with the tail end of the unabridged birth certificate issue; the 10-month suspension of SA Tourism CEO Sisa Ntshona; and now the biggest challenge yet – the devastating impact of Covid-19 on the tourism sector.


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Notwithstanding recent criticism of Kubayi-Ngubane as head of the tourism portfolio, she has been one of the busiest ministers in trying to address some of the issues faced by the sector amidst the Covid-19 crisis. Decisions around the lockdown, despite its devastating impact on the tourism and hospitality sector, are made by national government.

Whether we like it or not, tourism is still not taken seriously by government. The Tourism Department itself is a minnow department in the bigger scheme of things and has taken one of the biggest budget cuts. One has to question how big a say it has at the Covid-19 National Command Council.

Before the pandemic crisis, President Ramaphosa in both his State of the Nation Addresses (2020 and 2019) highlighted the tourism industry as one of the apex sectors for job creation and growth. Is the president hearing the sector’s pleas for help?