All eyes will be on the INDABA Travel Show in May, because if there is a place where stakeholders can effectively meet and discuss ways to break the tourism lull and grow the economy, this is it.
INDABA, says Ms Mmatsatsi Ramawela is where South Africa showcases itself to the world, alongside its African neighbours; where the country's brand can renew itself and show that we are not shy to bring out what is uniquely ours. Ramawela is the CEO of Tourism Business Council of South Africa (TBCSA).
“It has always been a great platform for South and southern Africa; to show the world what we are about. It is still relevant because there is no other show with the history, stature, quality and professionalism that INDABA can offer.
“INDABA should not take criticism, whenever it is levelled, as a sign that it should be done away with. It is still relevant. It will be some time before any competitors can catch up with what INDABA has been able to achieve by connecting Africa to the world. It takes place in great facilities; it knows the language of packaging and selling destinations.”
The challenge: A triple whammy with high costs on the side
Tourism is suffering from a triple blow, says Ramawela. It is still trying to recover from losses due to the new immigration regulations and the miscommunication that went with it, the fairly recent xenophobic attacks and the effects of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
"All these things have affected the sentiments towards emerging markets. Even though we present ourselves to the world as being just one step away, we are closer to the south pole than anything else. Every little hiccup affects us. We need a strategy to recover our brand name and our market share.”
TBCSA has been engaging with stakeholders to fast track the recovery process. An immediate step, she says, would be for the National Department of Home Affairs to “absolutely clarify” what it requires for people wanting to travel to South Africa with children.
“There is still a situation where even if you come from visa exempt countries, you are strongly advised to travel with certain documents regarding your children. This is a major thing for us. What exactly constitutes proof of relations with a minor? We need a clear directive.”
Another difficulty is the high cost of airlines flying in and out of South Africa. Ramawela explains that our passenger taxes, fuel taxes, landing and other fees have recently been found to be among the highest in the world.
“Many people have no idea what it takes for an airline to land here. These costs levied by airports are passed on to the airline, and then to the passenger. We need to address this before other destinations are eating our lunch.
“We are not a big country. Nigeria has 170 million people and it is pushing very hard to get people empowered and skilled to take advantage of tourism opportunities.”
Will the weak Rand help?
No, she says.
“This thing about the value of the Rand is exaggerated. If you look at what is happening in the global economy, all emerging markets are struggling; all currencies are under pressure.
“Our competitors, like Brazil and Thailand, and even Australia are under pressure. All these countries are affordable in the market place. We do not see more traction just because the Rand is low. The negative sentiment towards our country is the battle ground.”
She insists that South Africa has something for everybody, whether a business trades at the bottom or the very top, “because we are indeed the world in one country.”
“Instead of trusting in a low Rand, the industry needs to sort out its pricing. It should not try to sell itself as an exclusive high-end destination only, when the country has so much more to offer.”
Building solutions together
Ramawela says the job of finding answers to economic or tourism issues does not fall uniquely on the shoulders of South African Tourism.
“It is everybody's business in the true sense of the word. To deal with the impediments we need everybody who operate in this space – government on all levels, business, and the tourism trade. While there needs to be control, we have to make it easier to do business here.
“The issue in question is the brand name of South Africa. We really need to clean it up, and it will need to be a collaborative act. It is not just government's job. It is about how we represent our country.
“Visitors often arrive here, only to be amazed at how different the picture is from what they saw on the news.”
She says stakeholders should build consensus around South Africa's value proposition.
“I find that sometimes we are shy about our unique opportunities. We package what we think people want, and hide our true self from the international community.
“If we want to renew ourselves, we have to innovate our offerings and put out new brands. We need to focus on matchmaking so entrepreneurs big or small can find their space in this bigger picture.
“INDABA helps with just that. It brings people together. This is where we put our best foot forward, and sell the right package at the right price. This year's INDABA can again make a big contribution in this way, and can help us recover and get back our space in the market.”
There is already a “behind the scenes movement” of companies, airlines and tourism operators extending their presence into Africa, building new African markets without much fanfare, she explains.
“This tells me that there is a grassroots embracing of the continent. I was glad when the focus at INDABA recently shifted to it being a Pan-African show, and I noted this year's theme around togetherness.
“Importantly, INDABA should continue to embrace Africa, and not just southern Africa. We cannot redefine ourselves on our own.
“Also, by allowing our neighbours in, we enable the buyer to connect with the entire Africa under one roof. Tourism stakeholders must realise there is a show they can go to find the whole of Africa.
“I dream of the day when all 54 African states are assembled under one roof. What a marvellous thing it will be if we could achieve that.”
INDABA takes place from 7-9 May, at the Inkosi Albert Luthuli Convention Centre (Durban ICC) and the Durban Exhibition Centre (DEC).
For more information or to register as a buyer, visit www.INDABA-southafrica.net.
Alternatively, you may download the INDABA App from Google or Play store or follow us on Twitter @SATravelTrade.