The last couple of months have been rather stormy for tourism in South Africa. On top of a stronger rand, which makes South Africa much more expensive for foreign tourists compared to a year ago, tourists have been very concerned about the water crisis in Cape Town and the Listeriosis outbreak.

More recently, the debate about land reform and numerous incidents of illegal land grabs have hit the headlines. And for the umpteenth time, service delivery protests have blocked access roads to the Kruger National Park, disrupting people’s travel plans and scaring tourists away from our beautiful country.

Tourism supports thousands of jobs and is one of the few growing sectors of our struggling economy. If we’re serious about promoting tourism, we need to stop scoring own goals and address the issues that are chasing tourists away.

Let’s look at three examples.

Day Zero

The Day Zero message that helped Cape Town achieve the necessary water savings to finally avoid Day Zero, initially had the unintended consequence of scaring tourists away. The headlines abroad painted a picture of dry dams, people lining up for water rations, and a city in crisis with no water. Scaring the citizens into saving water seems to have worked, but it came at a price. The headlines abroad caused many tourists to cancel their bookings, or at least cancel the Cape Town portion of their trip.

We will never know how many potential tourists decided not to book due to the water crisis, but according to a Wesgro survey, hotels are experiencing much lower levels of forward bookings, compared to the same period last year. Forward bookings of tour operators are also down.

Thankfully, Satsa (Southern Africa Tourism Services Association) and Wesgro stepped in and worked with the City of Cape Town and provincial government to change the message that went out regarding the water situation, to mitigate the negative impact on tourism. A more tourist-friendly statement was put out, but a lof of damage had been done already. And the world media prefers a hysterical crisis to a measured, non-sensational story.

The lesson here is simple. We need to be more conscious of the message we put out there. When the paw-paw hits the fan, we need to be like ducks. All peaceful and beautiful above the water, but paddling like crazy underneath the water, where nobody can see. Our message and image to the world needs to be that we’re in full control of the situation, there is nothing to worry about, don’t cancel your trip. Behind closed doors, of course, we need to scramble and paddle and brainstorm and fix the crisis, like true South Africans.

Land Grabs

Another example of South Africa providing fodder for the sensationalist world media is on the topic of land reform. In the eyes of the world, we are not engaged in a necessary land reform debate. We are engaged in a land grabbing crisis, and heading down the same path as Zimbabwe.

This is a crisis of confidence. There have been isolated reports of illegal land grabs, mainly EFF supporters rocking up to an empty piece of land and staking out claims to build their shacks on. This has happened many times in South Africa; there have been many examples of illegal land occupations. But right now it is happening in a context of Parliament’s motion to change the Constitution to enable the government to proceed with land expropriation without compensation. In the international media, this news is usually accompanied by images of burning farms, angry crowds invading land, and headlines that white farmers are being murdered and chased off their land, à la Zimbabwe. We even had Australian politicians offering fast-track visas to white South African farmers.

These are the images tourists see on their TV screens and Facebook timelines. Good news seldom goes viral. But land grabs, farm murders, fear and uncertainty, this is what sells newspapers. And this fear and uncertainty is what is chasing tourists away. At the moment, the world is not reassured that the land issue will not blow up into a major disaster.

A lot of damage has already been done, and the government needs to prioritise two urgent things:
1) Change the message about land reform to reassure the international community that private property rights are secure and will remain secure.
2) Back up such reassurance with action. Deal firmly and decisively with illegal land grabs and farm murders. If the government is seen to stand by and do nothing to stop land grabs, the current situation can easily spiral out of control, and there will be no winners, only losers.

Protests and Road Blocks

Another common and very destructive example of an own goal that destroys our reputation as a tourist-friendly country, is when key tourist roads are blocked due to protest action. In South Africa, everyone has the right to peaceful protest. But nobody has the right to violent protest that infringes on the rights of others. Service delivery protests are common in South Africa, and usually do not impact tourism much. But when the main access roads to O R Tambo airport or to the Kruger National Park are regularly blocked by protestors, the authorities need to step in quickly and deal with it firmly.

Tourists pay thousands of rands to come to South Africa and visit the Kruger National Park or Sabi Sand Game Reserve. If the road is blocked and tourists cannot get to their destination, or are turned around and instructed to take a detour, nothing good can come from that. If their itinerary is disrupted, they will go home and never come back to SA, and warn others never to come to SA.

This is an ongoing problem that has already done much damage, but again the government needs to prioritise two urgent things:
1) Empower the police and local authorities to intervene decisively when illegal protestors are blocking roads. Don’t stand by and watch the tyres burn. Arrest the instigators and those who resort to violence and vandalism, clear up the road block quickly, commission the necessary resources and manpower to ensure the local authorities can stamp out this habit of illegal road blocks.
2) More importantly, deal with the grievances of the communities. Why do people have to resort to protest action in order to receive delivery of basic services? Because poor municipal service delivery is a major problem across the country. Poor government at local level can only be fixed by good governance at provincial and national level. Hold municipalities accountable. Failure of regional or local municipalities to govern effectively and provide quality service delivery (roads, schools, policing, water supply, sanitation, rubbish removal, electricity, health care) is one of the major underlying problems causing these service delivery protests. It affects tourism. It affects job creation. It affects economic growth.

I can mention many other examples of own goals.

The fear of crime probably scares away the most tourists. South Africa has a reputation as an unsafe country where you run a high risk of getting mugged, robbed, or hijacked. Our failure to address our high crime rate is costing us many thousands of jobs in the tourism sector.

Corrupt traffic police or metro cops stopping self-drive tourists and threatening them with imprisonment if they do not pay hefty spot fines for real or imaginary (but usually minor) offences. Tourists need to be waved through at road blocks, not hassled by cops.

Other own goals include high pricing, poor standards and sloppy customer service, and of course stifling beaurocracy such as the NPTR (National Public Transport Regulator) fiasco, which continues to frustrate tour operators with vehicles, having to wait months for operating licences.

The fact that we are still seeing increased arrivals from certain markets bears testimony to the fantastic destination that South Africa is, and the resilience of our industry to march ahead in spite of all these challenges. I tip my hat to you all.