SA tourism: This is how we get back on our feet

Johannesburg, 20 Jul 2023
Prof Elmarie Slabbert, director of the research unit Tourism Research in Economics, Environs and Society (TREES) at the North-West University (NWU).
Prof Elmarie Slabbert, director of the research unit Tourism Research in Economics, Environs and Society (TREES) at the North-West University (NWU).

The COVID-19 pandemic has left an indelible scar on the face of South Africa’s tourism sector, and although cosmetic touch-ups have restored some of its previous splendour, some extensive surgery is still required to get it back to rude health.

According to Prof Elmarie Slabbert, director of the research unit Tourism Research in Economics, Environs and Society (TREES) at the North-West University (NWU), the importance of the tourism sector should not be underestimated. This is evident from the COVID-19 pandemic, when the contribution of the sector to the country’s GDP dropped from 8.7% in 2018 to 3.7% in 2020. This effect was compounded by the loss of 1.5 million jobs in the sector at the height of the pandemic. Although a significant recovery has been made, more can still be done. 

One of the biggest obstacles facing South Africa as a tourist destination is its location.

As Prof Slabbert explains: “From an international point of view, South Africa is a long-haul destination, which has a cost implication for international guests. These tourists are also concerned with their safety and the unpredictability of actions such as looting and political unrest. From a domestic point of view, less than 50% of South Africans travel – mainly due to economic circumstances. With this in mind, the tourism sector needs to review their products in terms of accessibility and affordability if we want to grow the domestic market.

"One of the biggest challenges for the tourism sector is its dependence on other departments to function well so that the sector can operate smoothly; for example, Home Affairs dealing with passports and visas. If this department delays processes relating to visas and passports, it discourages people from travelling and enjoying the tourism experiences. I also believe that it is critical for the tourism sector to employ more people who are trained for this sector, as they understand the importance of looking after a tourist in every way possible.”

South Africa’s deteriorating infrastructure, coupled with a high crime rate, is also proving to be counterproductive to the good promotional work being done.

“The promotion of tourism in South Africa is done well, but the external factors such as crime, safety, visas, poor roads, access, etc, are hampering growth. South Africa is on the bucket list of many international tourists, but after COVID-19, they are concerned about these factors and will rather choose a destination where they are less concerned about the effect of unpredictable external factors. However, South Africa has a jewel, namely our natural scenery and attractions, which should be promoted as the major drawcard of this country,” says Prof Slabbert.

She is also of the opinion that research such as that being done by TREES can aid policymakers in uplifting the tourism sector.

“The research done by TREES can inform and guide policy development to build a more sustainable tourism sector. Research should not remain in academic articles and libraries – it should be available to the sector to implement. Currently, the tourism resilience model that we developed for South Africa as a destination through a project for the national Department of Tourism is promoted through workshops in different provinces for implementation. This is an excellent example of how research can inform policy, empower different stakeholders and determine action to move the sector forward. Policymakers should rely on scientific research when crafting policies, and a research unit such as TREES that understands the sector is an ideal partner in that regard.”

Prof Slabbert also believes the best way to change perceptions about South Africa is to first pay heed to domestic issues, as these pay the most long-term dividends.

“The tourism sector in South Africa is highly regarded and once people have explored this country and experienced the quality products and hospitality of South Africans, they want to revisit the country. It is more the perceptions regarding safety, roads, access and poverty that discourage people from visiting. As a country, we should focus on improving these factors, since that will influence the overall perceptions. Added to that, social media platforms should be utilised to boost the image of South Africa. Every South African should do their part to build the sector.”