International airlines and government cemented a relationship of open dialogue during the first of a series of engagements between the Board of Airlines of South Africa (BARSA) members and the Minister of Tourism, Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, at a closed session in Johannesburg on Friday, November 8.

“This initiative is an effort to improve communication between key government and key tourism stakeholders and ensure government fully understands the airline industry’s concerns and addresses some of the obstacles to tourism growth,” said deputy chair of the Tourism Business Council South Africa (TBCSA) and BARSA CEO, June Crawford.

Addressing media after the session, she added that she was “pleased” that the minister had acknowledged that international airlines formed the backbone of the tourism industry.

“President Cyril Ramaphosa has highlighted that tourism is the presidency’s number two priority as it is a key source of revenue and job creation,” Crawford said.

Some of the big challenges that were being addressed by government, were the issues around visas, tourism safety and the Unabridged Birth Certificate (UBC), said Deputy Chairperson of BARSA and Regional Manager: Africa for Qantas Airways, Michi Messner

Currently, India, China and Nigeria are some of South Africa’s biggest tourism markets and airlines have noted significant drops in passengers flying into South Africa from these countries, thus emphasising the need for more proactive approaches to tourism concerns.

Other challenges the airlines, and the inbound industry in general, face in trying to grow tourism numbers is a lack of public transport infrastructure as well as a perception that South Africa was an expensive destination. “The destination does draw the high-end tourists but there is so much more to South Africa than luxury travel. In fact, the destination has appeal to a wide cross-section of income brackets,” said Messner.

Crawford highlighted that while there had been challenges, many of which were being addressed by government, there were positive stories that also needed to be shared to provide a more balanced perception of South Africa as an inbound tourism destination.

Messner agreed, saying that international airlines had also undertaken to ensure the positive messages about South Africa were shared in the airlines’ countries of origin. “We have a responsibility to ensure smart messaging and effective communication,” she added.

Last year, tourism in South Africa contributed 1.5 million jobs and R425.8 billion to the economy, making it the largest tourism economy in Africa, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC).