The tourism sector has done relatively well in terms overall employment equity. Of the approximately 680 800 people employed in the sector, at least 75% were from historically marginalised groups according to the most recent Satellite Tourism Account. Yet we know that this transformation in employment patterns has not filtered through to the senior management, executive and board levels of businesses in the sector.

The percentage of women and black people, black women especially, at these higher levels is disproportionately low.

According to the Department of Tourism, “The low percentage was attributed mainly to the unavailability of black women managers in the sector with the required qualifications, skills profile and experience for promotion to the executive management and board positions.”

This suggests that there is a disconnect in the sector’s talent management programmes. If there are too few black people and women in tourism with the required qualification, skills and experience for promotion to the highest levels, it is because we as a sector have not made enough of an investment in them.

I call it an investment because it will generate a return in future. That is what sustainability as a business strategy is all about. It requires that we consider the processes through which our businesses create value in the short, medium and long term, and that we design interventions that remove the impediments to continued growth.

The slow rate of transformation at the highest levels of our sector is one such impediment.

One way it impedes growth is that the value created by our sector is not distributed equitably. This means that we likely have people working in tourism who themselves have never had the experience of being tourists, because they cannot afford it. Our own actions in not doing enough to develop black and female workers in the sector are robbing us of potential customers. It also likely has a negative experience on service quality.

After all, cooks who never taste their own food are likely dishing up sub-par food, unless they are supremely gifted. And if they are supremely gifted, why are they mere cooks and not the head chef?

Another way the slow pace of transformation at the highest levels impedes growth is through the appeal of the products and services in the sector. If the people making the decisions about how tourism products should be designed and packaged are not broadly representative of the potential market, then the products might not generate the desired appeal. This problem is particularly evident in domestic tourism, where large numbers of black people who earn enough to travel for leisure do not.

Businesses in the sector, therefore, should begin investing more heavily in transforming at the highest levels. The investment doesn’t necessarily have to be expensive to be effective. Creating succession plans and ensuring that more experienced senior-level people mentor and transfer skills to the next crop of black and women leaders can make a big, cost-effective difference.

The investment could also be in the form of providing mentorship and guidance to black- and female-run small and medium enterprises. Even as simple an act as providing such enterprises access to the networks that larger enterprises have built over the years can filter through to creating a more sustainable, vibrant and thriving tourism sector.

The business case for investing in skills transfer and development to transform the tourism sector is clear. What it requires now is active recognition of the opportunity, and the desire and will to act and follow it through.