Tourism has been a major economic driver of the global economy for over 50 years and in 2019 directly contributed US$2.9 trillion to Global GDP and generated 10% of global employment in providing over 280 million jobs. At that time there appeared to be no limit with projected employment rising above 11% by 2026 and GDP contribution responding accordingly.
But all of this changed in Q1 of 2020 as slowly but surely the world closed its borders to all but essential movement and repatriation flights and this buoyant sector literally ‘fell off a cliff’.
The Government of South Africa has struggled for some time to really embrace the potential of tourism and has not actively – perhaps since the tenure of Minister of Tourism and Environmental Affairs, Valli Moosa (1999 to 2002) – managed to truly establish tourism as a regular Cabinet agenda item – as in ‘what has your department done to encourage tourism this week?’.
In fact, South Africa appears to have almost deliberately gone the other way, with a succession of tourism ‘own goals’, such as the Unabridged Birth Certificate debacle, a failure to get the e-Visas working, continued confusion over the role and viability of the national carrier (SAA), the licensing of transport tour operators and a failure to address blatant criminality in terms of attacks on tourists and citizens when visiting our tourism destinations.
It has long been argued that Governments shouldn’t try to DO as they do not have a track record of delivery but rather they should seek to FACILITATE and ENABLE. Somehow this concept appears not to have penetrated the majority of Government Departments responsible for one or other part of the total tourism value chain.
I was pleased to see David Frost, CEO of SATSA, speak out recently on what needs to be done within South Africa in terms of key tourism enablers: air access; health protocols; visa regimes; and safety and security. I wholeheartedly support each and every item on the proposed agenda but, whereas all these actions will unquestionably help South Africa’s tourism competitiveness, perhaps there is a higher level question that needs to be asked.
Does any single market have the ability or the critical mass to rebuild this vital economic sector on its own? Or is there not a strong argument for tourism to experience a complete global reset if the sector is to resume its position as a major global economic generator of GDP growth and employment.
There are many areas for a possible global reset:
HEALTH AND HYGIENE – there is an urgent need for one agreed global protocol for dealing with health concerns such as the COVID pandemic. COVID-19 may need a two-phase approach (pre-vaccine and post-vaccine). E.g. Phase 1 (COVID pre universal vaccine) would require a PCR test 72 hours prior to departure (and possibly even a second one on arrival at destination?); phase 2 (post universal vaccine) would require a valid COVID vaccine certification before travel, which would effectively be a supplement to a passport. Consumers, the media and the travel trade remain completely confused by the differing interpretations of the various national and even provincial restrictions that are currently in place and which appear to change on a weekly basis.
AIR ACCESSIBILITY AND MOVEMENT TOWARDS ‘OPEN SKIES’ – affordable air access is a vital underpinning of tourism growth as evidenced by the success of the Air Access initiative that Wesgro introduced in 2018. Given the dramatic fall in international flights, the concept of ‘Freedoms of the Air’, which goes back to the Chicago Convention of 1944, would appear to need revisiting. Given the critical role of global aviation in the promotion of tourism, is it not time to facilitate a global opening of the skies to maximise possible air access?
ENVIRONMENTAL SUSTAINABILITY – one of the few positive elements to emerge from the COVID lockdown has been the opportunity to reflect on broader societal issues such as the natural environment and phenomena such as climate change. The entire tourism value chain will need to work together to agree, and then to effectively implement, an environmental best practice protocol plus an environmental offset scheme to try to reduce the ‘carbon footprint’ of global tourism. Should the world of tourism not become the champions for the protection, and where possible the replanting, of the world’s vital equatorial rain forests?
VISA SIMPLIFICATION AND HARMONISATION – both in terms of format (e-Visa) and intention. The challenge has always been one of different national agendas when it comes to the assessment and issuing of visas: maximise tourism, minimise refugees/immigrants, facilitate business/commerce, generate forex (often an emerging market agenda). Perhaps the world needs to review the concept of visas holistically and simplify things for tourists? Whereas a global visa regime may not be possible surely the principles that have underwritten a scheme such as Schengen could be implemented in other regions – e.g. the introduction of a ‘Univisa’ for SADC?
BEYOND GEO-POLITICAL BOUNDARIES – regardless of travellers’ needs to enjoy ‘experiences’, many countries, regions and cities tend to promote only attractions in their own geo-political areas without real consideration of the tourists’ needs. For example, we appreciate that many visiting Americans want to include the Okavango (in Botswana) in their Southern Africa itineraries and would possibly want to link that with Victoria Falls (Zambia/Zimbabwe), Cape Town and the Kruger Park but countries almost inevitably try to channel and even restrict visitors to what they want them to see, driven by an ‘insular’ agenda. As a sector, we know that we need to see tourism through the eyes and needs of the traveller and understand that, for many visitors, a trip to southern Africa, for example, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that they would like to maximise.
SAFETY AND SECURITY – this is another challenge, notably in emerging markets, as perceptions are driven by media (increasingly social media) coverage from which attitudes regarding personal safety are entrenched. What is probably required is some sort of adherence to global security standards or at least a global ‘safe travel’ App that acts as a local travel guide/guardian wherever tourists find themselves. But in the interim in South Africa, if we could just deploy law enforcement officers to actually make citizens feel safe rather than threatened regarding COVID freedom contraventions, it would be a great step forward.
MICE – Business tourism is a part of the market where perhaps a complete rethink is required. If people are increasingly working remotely, it makes sense to assume, given health concerns and limited budgets due to economic consequences of the lockdown, that the appetite for business travel is going to take even longer to recover than the leisure market. We need to consider that the MICE sector may be required to transform into a ‘Phydigital’ reality (at the interface of Physical and Technology) and perhaps that incentive travel may be increasingly driven to uncrowded wilderness-type areas as opposed to the historically popular incentive destinations?
POSITIONING – the art of positioning a destination or attraction and targeting specific segments of the market have too often been sacrificed in favour of a broad-based ‘shotgun’ approach rather than the application of a ‘rifle’ mentality. If more thought was given to focusing on what one has that uniquely satisfies the needs of the prospective traveller, then the world’s DMOs may be able to squeeze greater value out of their marketing budgets rather than simply creating repetitive and often undifferentiated messaging.
The above points are by no means comprehensive but are rather intended to stimulate a debate within the sector nationally but also globally. At this stage, perhaps it can serve as an ignition point for a more necessary deeper evaluation of what a global tourism reset could consist of. What is needed as an outcome is a more conducive global enabling environment for the re-ignition of tourism. One of the only positive consequences of COVID is the opportunity that it has provided for reflection, and now it also provides the rationale to ‘Build Back Better’!