Lebo Malepa has come a long way since he started his Soweto guesthouse 15 years ago. He now employs 40 people and has expanded to include bike tours, a restaurant, a backpackers and even an Airbnb.
“Every year the numbers are going up and every year we are creating new jobs,” says an excited Malepa, who runs Lebo’s Backpackers. His business has benefited from a growing number of foreign visitors searching for authentic experiences such as overnighting in a township. There are now three other bike operators and five other backpackers in the vicinity.
“I think there’s big potential. I think in the next 20 years it will be huge,” he enthuses. It helps that tourism is one of the easiest sectors in which to start out. Malepa initially used his grandmother’s home to start the guesthouse and first borrowed bicycles from local residents when he added bike tours.
The country’s National Development Plan (NDP) holds that tourism can stimulate the growth of small businesses; this while President Cyril Ramaphosa in February 2017 highlighted the potential of tourism in his first State of the Nation Address and identified it as a priority sector for his administration.
Indeed, foreign arrivals grew from 3.6-million in 1994 to almost 9.6-million in 2008, reaching close to 10.3-million in 2017. The 2010 World Cup alone brought over 1.4-million new visitors to the country. Yet in 2017, visitor numbers edged up by just 2.4% over the previous year, below the 7% average increase of foreign visitors globally over the same period.
To address this, SA Tourism wants to attract an additional 5-million tourists by 2021, made up of 4-million more international arrivals and 1-million more domestic holiday trips. SA Tourism says the idea behind the plan – dubbed the ‘five-in-five’ strategy – is to use the organisation’s 10 offices around the world and set each one a target to contribute towards South Africa. The organisation is partnering with various other organisations to meet the target.
With the sector growing just 2.4% in 2017 – instead of the targeted 7% – South Africa currently remains behind in meeting the target of attracting 5-million additional tourists. This was, at least in part, attributable to messaging around the water crisis in Western Cape in 2018. A survey released in September 2018 by hospitality body FEDHASA Cape found that bookings in the early part of the year were down by 67% compared to the same period in 2017 because of the drought. The good news: with dams now filling up, one can expect this to change.
Most foreign visitors plan their visits around three areas of South Africa: Cape Town, the Garden Route and the Kruger National Park. In an attempt to make tourism more sustainable, SA Tourism has begun promoting other destinations in the country.
In addition, President Ramaphosa’s Cabinet is considering both the introduction of e-visas for certain countries and doing away with visa requirements for others. Following the visa waiver for Angola in December 2017, there was a 39.2% increase in the number of Angolans visiting South Africa during May 2018 compared to the same period a year before. Similarly, in 2017, after the decision to do away with visas for Russian tourists, visitors from Russia increased by 52%.
Part of the challenge is coordination in government. To grow the sector, the revised National Tourism Sector Strategy was approved by Cabinet in 2017. It aims to improve tourism assets and infrastructure, promote excellent service, and effectively market the country as a destination (by offering training courses for those in tourism and language training to frontline staff) thus making it easier for tourists to come to South Africa and transform the industry. The department has also established a dedicated unit to promote and actively seek investment.
Investments worth R71-billion were made in tourism developments in 2017, accounting for over 8% of total investment in South Africa. This is expected to reach R112-billion by 2028.
David Frost, the CEO for the Southern Africa Tourism Services Association, points out tourism grew in terms of its contribution to GDP by 18% in 2016 and 7% in 2017 – both above the global average. For Frost, the government has made a lot of promises to prioritise the sector that need to come to fruition.
The UN’s World Tourism Organisation expects the market share of emerging economies to increase from 30% in 1980 to 57% by 2030, equivalent to over one billion international tourist arrivals. Africa is forecast to more than double the number of arrivals by 2030, from 50 million to 134 million. Good news indeed for the region.
South Africa grants visa-free travel to 75 countries, 16 on the African continent and 59 from the rest of the world. The Department of Home Affairs recently announced the extension of the visa-free status to:
• United Arab Emirates
• New Zealand
• Saudi Arabia
• Sao Tome and Principe