Considering the proven potential travel and tourism would have for South Africa’s economy and job creation, this sector simply isn’t being taken seriously enough.
Travel has been identified as a major economic driver globally. In South Africa, it accounts for 9.5% of our GDP and employs at least 1.6 million people.
And yet the country’s travel and tourism industry has been assailed over the past few years by persistent hurdles (some self-imposed) that have discouraged tourists from travelling either to our shores or beyond.
From unabridged birth certificates for minors to stringent visa requirements, thousands of travellers have been deterred from visiting South Africa at a time when the exchange rate should have made it very affordable.
The latest obstacle to our tourism growth comes in the guise of a hurdle that has long impacted our inbound tourist arrivals – crime and perceptions of safety.
According to the Tourism Business Council of South Africa, the number one reason why potential visitors to South Africa don’t convert their awareness, interest and desire into visiting South Africa is a concern for personal safety.
Security concerns at OR Tambo International most recently prompted the US Consul General in Johannesburg to issue a security warning to US citizens about the airport, urging them to exercise caution when arranging ground transportation.
The warning comes off the back of repeated “follow home” robberies, smuggled goods and a brazen multimillion-rand cash heist in March.
Announcing several key initiatives recently to improve security at the airport, Police Minister Fikile Mbalula recognised that corruption and collusion where police officers were in “cahoots with criminals” were to blame for the crimes that have put staff and travellers at risk at South Africa’s largest airport, through which over 21 million passengers travelled in 2016.
While the plan will go some way to allay travellers’ fears, its actual implementation and hopefully the visible reduction of incidents is what the travel industry and its customers (the travelling public) most desire.
The Southern African Tourism Services Association has applauded the minister’s quick response and highlighted that in some countries, such as India, you can only access the airport if you have a valid travel document and that this is checked by the police prior to entering an airport.
Chief executive of the tourism services association, David Frost, speculates that at some point South Africa will have to go this route.
Flight Centre Travel Group’s managing director of the Middle East and Africa Andrew Stark says small improvements in security, lighting, dealing with hawkers and enhanced security check points would go some way to ensuring the safety of passengers.
Police visibility, provision of information to tourists and travellers warning them about risks and easy mechanisms to report anything out of the ordinary are further ways in which to manage the situation proactively.
The travel industry can also play a role in this initiative, believes the Association of Southern African Travel Agents.
Travel industry stakeholders must for instance advise their customers to be aware of their surroundings and always ask for official badges when being approached by airport security staff, porters and taxi drivers.
The security issue at OR Tambo International once again demonstrates the need for an integrated approach, involving the Tourism Safety Initiative, Government and its institutions, and private sector through the associations that represent the interests of travel and tourism stakeholders, including the Association of Southern African Travel Agents, the Southern African Tourism Services Association and Board of Airline Representatives South Africa.
The only agenda: to remove the obstacles that are hindering the growth of tourism and travel in South Africa. Travellers have a choice to travel to and within South Africa. Let’s not give them a reason not to.
• Natalia Rosa is a director at Big Ambitions, a specialist travel sales and marketing consultancy