Selling South Africa as a destination to our international markets may seem easy if we only engage with existing enquiries and potential customers who've already decided to visit South Africa. In fact, most tour operators and tourism product owners are not selling the destination as such – the clients (or their agents) who contact us have already decided to travel to our shores. We mainly need to sell ourselves and persuade the client not to book with a competitor.
Yet we're all affected by our destination's reputation and image abroad, and by the success or failure of the combined marketing efforts of the inbound tourism sector, our overseas partners and agents as well as SA Tourism in promoting Brand SA to a global audience.
We're also affected directly by external factors beyond our control that shape our image abroad. During 2014, we all felt the effects of Ebola, even though Southern Africa has had no cases of Ebola and is thousands of miles from the outbreak. We were directly harmed by the alarmist hype, screaming headlines and sensationalist reporting by much of the world's media, some of whom seem happy to sacrifice accurate reporting in favour of traffic generated by scary headlines. Clickbait, they call it.
Recently South Africa made international headlines once more for all the wrong reasons, as xenophobia reared its ugly head again and we witnessed looting and violence in some of our townships, directed mainly at immigrants. In 2008 when xenophobic violence swept the country, world news headlines like "Foreigners attacked in South Africa" were easily misinterpreted and certainly did not help our destination marketing efforts.
Last year, inbound tourism was threatened by new immigration legislation, intended to make South Africa safer but with the unintended result of making us poorer, through huge potential losses in tourism revenue. Affected source markets baulked in dismay and we quickly started to see significant reductions in forward bookings from important markets such as Russia, India and China.
Crime, and our country's reputation as being unsafe, remains an ongoing threat to tourism, and perhaps the number-one reason why many tourists avoid South Africa and choose competing destinations instead. As a long-haul destination for US and UK tourists, we compete with destinations such as East Africa, Brazil, Australia and various countries in Asia. And we have far to go before we can compete with countries like Thailand, which have more than twice as many international tourist arrivals than South Africa. Even Morocco has us beat.
Are we completely at the mercy of challenges and threats like these, or is there something we can do to strengthen our brand, protect our international image and promote destination SA?
There is much we can do.
1.Use social media wisely.
Social media can be a powerful brand building tool if we think before we post or comment. How will this post portray our destination to an international audience? A good example is the recent video of a car that was overturned by an elephant in the Kruger National Park, which went viral on social media. Some themes appeared to stand out among the thousands of angry comments and strong opinions on YouTube and Facebook – anger at the stupidity of these "ignorant tourists", anger at the way SANParks dealt with the elephant and, from some people, doubts about whether or not the Kruger is safe to visit. As rare as such an incident is, these accidents tend to go viral, presenting an inaccurate image of the safari experience and what to expect in the Kruger. We can't stop such videos from going viral but we can add balance and perspective with our comments, instead of adding fuel to the fire and ranting against the tourists in question, scaring away other tourists in the process.
2.Consider the impact of press releases and blog posts.
The Ebola crisis saw a lot of sensationalist, fear-mongering headlines in the world's media, scaring off tourists. Fortunately, this was countered by a number of very well-written press releases and blog posts to try and paint a more accurate picture, but not before a lot of damage had been done. Perhaps we shouldn't run to the media with every negative story or complaint we have. Good news seldom makes the headlines but bad or shocking news does. If the story will damage our destination's reputation, what will you gain if the media reports on it? Don't vent your frustrations to the media. If it's an issue or problem that needs attention, how will the media help to solve it? Perhaps there are more constructive ways to address it, such as proactively engaging with stakeholders like government or industry associations.
3.Keep your online comments constructive.
The comments on some of our mainstream news websites sometimes make me ashamed to be South African. Behind the safety of an anonymous screen name, some people seem to drop all attempts at being civil and polite. Hatred, racism and ad hominem attacks rule the day. It's not realistic to expect to always be in agreement or only leave positive comments but we can certainly be balanced, civil and constructive. If you read an inaccurate media story or something harmful to our destination, set the record straight in the comments! Or write a positive letter to the editor and supply the correct facts.
4.Generate positive word-of-mouth advertising among clients.
Tourists take back stories not just of their own experiences, but also those we tell them. I've seen guests sitting wide-eyed in astonishment as their guide tells horrible crime stories, or scary tales of tourists who were attacked by animals (in which the guide is the hero, usually). Imagine if a bungee operator employee told all kinds of stories about bungee jumping accidents! It would be bad for business and I'm sure the operator or owner would not tolerate it. I've also witnessed international tourists cringe or get offended at racists jokes or tactless comments made by an obnoxious and bigoted guide. We need to keep our staff accountable and help the guides and other front-line staff to understand their own role in building (or harming) not just the company brand, but brand South Africa.
We are extremely good at running our country down and criticising everything, from the potholes to the crime situation to Eskom, and especially the government. It's easy to be negative and point to the failures of government. Our complaints and frustrations may be legit, but perhaps we need to filter what we say to our guests. An Afrikaans saying comes to mind which can be translated as "don't talk out of the house", meaning don't air your dirty laundry for the world to see. It's not about being dishonest or sweeping things under the carpet but it's about deliberately presenting our best image to guests – the tourists who will be sharing their experiences back home with friends and family, posting trip reports on their Facebook wall, and writing reviews on TripAdvisor.
South Africa has so many positive stories to tell, and these are the stories we need to be sharing with the world. Our rich history, our peaceful transition to democracy, or melting pot of cultures and languages, our fantastic wildlife and scenery, our beautiful beaches and mountains, our wonderful people and their stories. Let's focus on the positives, while being honest and humble about our challenges. Let's protect our international image and deliberately promote the many selling points of our destination. And let's stand together in our disapproval when locals or expats or the media disparage our destination and harm our image abroad with unnecessary negativity.