Tourism industry leaders are waiting with bated breath for a positive outcome to the ongoing controversy surrounding South Africa’s reluctance to decry Russia’s role in instigating the war in Ukraine.
The concerns come as African leaders, including South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, are wrapping up a crucial peace mission that involved meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
One of the key outcomes was a 10-point proposal presented by Ramaphosa on behalf of the seven African states embarking on the mission, to end the conflict. The proposal recommended that:
- Both leaders must listen to one another;
- The war must be settled through negotiations and diplomatic means;
- There must be a de-escalation of conflict on both sides;
- The sovereignty of countries in terms of the UN Charter and internationally recognised principles should be recognised;
- There needs to be a guarantee of security for all the countries involved. This issue has been raised by all sides;
- The movement of grains across the Black Sea must be opened up to remove blockages so that commodities can reach markets;
- Humanitarian efforts must be set up for those affected by the war;
- Prisoners of war must be released and children returned to Ukraine;
- There must be reconstruction of the destruction caused by the war; and
- Further engagements should be held to encourage more dialogue through the Africa Peace Mission.
Tourism an industry of peace
At the time of publication, it was still unclear whether South Africa will host the upcoming BRICS Summit in August and whether the country will welcome Putin (who is subject to an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes) to the event. With talks still at a sensitive stage, tourism industry associations have declined to comment on the potential impacts of a visit by Putin and the broader implications of the South African government’s stance on the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
Ron Mackenzie, Founder and Director of luxury travel company The Safari Guys, said South Africa’s reputation as a tourist destination could suffer should Putin come to the country.
“At the moment it’s a case of waiting to see whether it will happen or not. So there is a lot that is still up in the air. It’s definitely a concern.”
Mackenzie said members of the tourism industry had little power to sway government diplomacy decisions, but stressed that tourism was, by its very nature, an industry of peace.
“Without peace, tourism cannot exist, so the industry as a whole is highly opposed to conflict. Our narrative is one of happiness and enjoyment, experiencing the best of a country and its people.”
Threat to tourist numbers?
Mackenzie said he had yet to experience cancellations from key source markets, and urged the international community to focus on South Africa’s attractiveness as a tourist destination and the economic importance of the sector to the country.
“South Africa is a spectacular destination, regardless of the decisions taken by government. And I also encourage tourists to think about the immense positive impacts that tourism (and therefore their visit) has in terms of job creation, particularly in a difficult time for our economy,” said Mackenzie.
In a WhatsApp poll conducted by Mackenzie and seen by Tourism Update, tourism industry members said they had not received any cancellations directly linked to Putin’s visit.
A prominent US-based CEO focused on investment in Africa (who spoke to Tourism Update on condition of anonymity) said he had not seen South Africa’s position on Russia having an impact on the US market yet.
“Sitting here in the US, I just don’t see it having much of an effect on the decision of US tourists to visit. I know people who have headed to SA and, despite them knowing how well I know the country, they never even asked me about it, and they have all had fabulous holidays,” he said.
However, the Founder and CEO of a leading Cape Town-based tour operator (who also wished to remain unnamed), said concerns were steadily building amongst prospective international travellers.
“Guests aren’t buying South Africa’s neutrality, and the storm is growing in the US in particular. So while we are not losing bookings we are seeing pushback on South Africa as a destination and preference for safari destinations north of us,” the CEO said.
“The reality is that our country brand is not in a good state, and it’s not great that we as an industry are having to apologise for the state of affairs – from Russia, to load shedding to crime,” he added.