We welcome advancements to visa regulations that have come at the eleventh hour, especially the possibility of opening up key markets in India and China, but caution the industry from suggesting we’re out of the woods. The Department of Home Affairs has reiterated that unabridged birth certificates remain a requirement, and has a roll-out plan of up to a year for other changes to legislation. The announcement broke the eerie silence we’d experienced across the tourism savannah, and we will press forward with marketing our world-class destinations while the cogs of progress grind in the background.

Tourism in Cape Town was better than expected in December and appears to be moving on the road to recovery from significant drawbacks over a sustained period. Isolating one month’s figures, as in the case of December 2015, does not reflect the state of our industry in full.

A brief overview of 2015 shows that the low season in particular bore the brunt of collective challenges – the tail end of the West Africa Ebola crisis, the introduction of problematic visa and immigration regulations and xenophobia being prominent factors in low figures. There was some recovery in the fourth quarter of 2015, but, as industry professionals, we should look at what the opportunity cost of such challenges has been: what potential growth has been lost?

December’s figures for Cape Town were remarkable, with Cape Town International Airport enjoying record arrivals and some of the city’s main attractions having their best-ever monthly results in terms of visitor volumes. Of course, this is traditionally the peak month, so, while the record-breaking performance remains notable, this could feasibly have been even higher.

In 2014, according to the Grant Thornton Economic Value of Tourism report, the Western Cape took 26.3% of the national foreign direct spend, R19.7bn out of R74.4bn and, of that, Cape Town’s share was R13.6bn. The economic report for 2015 is not yet available but the industry has acknowledged a slight improvement overall from 2014.

Africa’s most visited tourist attraction, surpassing the Great Pyramids of Giza, had its busiest month in history: The V&A Waterfront chalked up 3.05 million visitors in December, and that’s not bad for what used to be nothing more than a grimy working harbour.

I’m not being flippant when I say this, though, tourism remains an industry of opportunity for visionaries, entrepreneurs and travel enthusiasts.

Nationally, a drought has continued to devastate certain regions, disrupting agriculture and food supplies. Any entrepreneurial venture must take the twin challenges of water shortages and electricity supply interruptions through load shedding into account when setting up the business. Those are major hurdles to overcome for existing companies that rely on consistent water and electricity (i.e., most of them) but they have also shone a (solar-powered) spotlight on the subject of sustainability.

A favourite example of mine when it comes to environmental awareness is Hotel Verde, next to Cape Town International Airport. Known as ‘Africa’s greenest hotel’, whose entire design and operation are structured around sustainability and environmental awareness. Concepts such as ‘zero waste to land-fill’ (waste management) and the minimisation of the environmental impact through all business practices set the hotel apart from many others. The vision encompasses every part of the running of the hotel, and includes the education of the hotel’s suppliers and staff in environmental matters.

Innovation is central to tourism. It’s not enough to simply point at Table Mountain and expect visitors to flock to it. Adding value to experiences is what we can do to ensure economic sustainability. For example, Kirstenbosch Garden was an incredible place to visit even before the creation of the Boomslang tree canopy walkway, but that addition to the attraction revitalised local and international interest.

Technology is affecting tourism in ever-increasing ways: smart bookings, social media tourism via hashtags such as #lovecapetown and apps that make trip preparation easier are facilitating travel in ways that destination management organisations should embrace. Tech can open doors to more visitors and enhance their experience.

2016 is a year of opportunity for us, and, while we may approach it with caution (risk-taking in this economic climate is not for the faint-hearted), South Africa is a destination that fascinates global travellers and we will enjoy international and regional visitors this year.

The current exchange rate is favourable to international visitors but it’s not wise to base a sustained business model on that. As we know, it can fluctuate, and, the industry has to balance the advantage that the exchange rate holds for foreign travellers, i.e. potentially more demand and spend, with the rising costs of inputs in their pricing and planning for 2016.

So we face a year of challenges but I believe that innovative responses to those will mark this year as a success in many ways. I’d like to offer a positive challenge to everyone in our industry: in all things, from events to sustainable business practices, continue to innovate and build on what you offer and take advantage of the opportunities that exist.