In 2015 Thailand welcomed 29.88 million international tourists. The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) knows exactly how many tourists visited the country because every visitor has to complete an arrival/departure form and may not proceed through immigration without this form. It is an extremely useful tool for TAT to assist with research and tourism marketing planning.
During the same period an unknown number of ‘tourists’ visited South Africa. When foreign visitors pass through our entry ports they do not have to fill in arrival forms. Instead they produce their passports. This indicates how many visitors we get from each country. However it does not paint the full picture. Many of these visitors are business travellers, transit travellers, cross-border shoppers, employment seekers, people visiting friends and relatives or migrant labourers returning to work after the Christmas holidays. This lack of accurate data has enabled various ministers and government officials to paint the picture they want others to see.
Personally, my guestimate is that South Africa received between 1.6 and 1.9 million overseas tourists in 2015. So how does Thailand get almost 30 million? What are they doing right? Where are we getting it wrong? As an owner of a destination marketing company for both countries I would like to highlight a few areas and draw a few comparisons and differences.
One can read in Thai travel brochures about the country’s amazing beaches, natural beauty, cultures, golf courses, spa facilities, outdoor adventures and so forth. Here in South Africa, in some cases, we arguably have more to offer and a better offering, like our celebrated wildlife reserves. In other words we have a tourism product here that is just as good as any other country.
Thailand has a brand ‘Amazing Thailand’ that everyone knows. South Africa changes its brand so often I have lost track of exactly what it is at the moment. TAT sends out product news, updates and travel advisories to the international travel marketing trade. I get one such email every single day, Monday to Friday, 52 weeks a year. Obviously it is working.
We cannot blame long-haul travel either. It is further and takes longer and is more expensive to fly from London, Amsterdam or New York to Bangkok than to fly to Johannesburg.
Tourist visas play an important role. In Thailand, tourists from almost every country worldwide (with a few exceptions) simply have to produce a passport at Thai immigration and they get a 30-day free tourist entry. This includes citizens of important emerging markets such as China, India and Russia. We all know the debacle that continues to inhibit tourism to SA.
Crime is a problem in SA. It’s not going to get better either. Thailand also has some crime. What they do there is to have a dedicated tourist police station in every tourist town in the heart of the tourist areas. Tourist police are highly visible. Food for thought?
A sample case: The Garden Route, (where I come from) is one of the top four tourist destinations in SA. Phuket is also one of the top four destinations in Thailand. Last year Phuket had a conservative estimate of 16 million tourist arrivals, of which 11 million arrived at Phuket Airport. On arrival at Phuket airport you can, within minutes and at little cost (R30-R60) hop on a public bus, take a minibus hotel drop-off or taxi and be in your hotel in no time at all.
There are no figures for international tourist arrivals in the Garden Route but it must be around the 400 000 per annum mark. On arrival at George airport, a tourist has four options: hire a car, book a tour, take a taxi or turn around and go home. If there is a taxi available, it will cost you R850 for a ride to Plettenberg Bay. This is the same distance from Phuket airport to the tourist centre in Patong. There are no tourist-friendly public transport options.
I recall attending a Garden Route regional tourism committee meeting in 1995. I said at the time that if the Garden Route wanted to become a competitive world-class destination it would have to create a cost-effective regional transport system. Twenty-one years on and nothing has happened. I think the same applies to many similar tourist destinations elsewhere in South Africa.