Unlocking South Africa’s tourism potential requires a more responsive government

The Travel and Tourism Development Index, which is updated by the World Economic Forum every two years, benchmarks and measures “the set of factors and policies that enable the sustainable and resilient development of the tourism sector” within 117 countries, including SA. The 2021 survey was released towards end-May 2022.

Semonkong,Lesotho, Africa - Maletsunyane Falls is a 192-metre-high (630 ft) waterfall, the tallest waterfall in Africa.
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Kevin Lings

STANLIB Chief Economist

The last two years have been extremely challenging for global tourism. The COVID-19 pandemic was the worst crisis the global Travel and Tourism sector has faced in modern times. Lockdowns, travel restrictions, consumer fears and economic downturns led to a loss of $4.5 trillion in global travel and tourism activity and the loss of 62 million jobs worldwide in 2020 alone.


While increasing vaccination rates, easing of travel restrictions and economic growth have helped to kickstart a recovery, it remains slow, uneven and fragile. Most countries are now in the process of reopening their economies following the worst of the COVID-19 crisis, including revitalising their domestic and foreign tourism industries.


This brings into focus the wide range of factors that contribute to a country’s ability to develop its tourism sector.


According to the 2021 Travel and Tourism Development report, aside from the US (which was 2nd in the global tourism development ranking), the top 10 scoring countries are high-income economies in the Europe, Eurasia or Asia-Pacific regions. Japan tops the ranking, with fellow regional economies Australia and Singapore coming in 7th and 9th, respectively. SA was ranked 68th in 2021, unchanged from the 2019 ranking. Its score is below the global average and similar to the score ascribed to Kazakhstan, Montenegro, Dominican Republic and Serbia.


A detailed breakdown and assessment of SA’s tourism development score provides some interesting insights.


First, SA scores highly in the category related to the demand drivers of tourism, in particular Natural Resources (national parks and nature reserves, landscapes, richness of fauna, etc), in which it ranks an impressive 13th in the world; non-leisure resources (factors that drive non-leisure travel, including medical travel, ranked 21st); and cultural resources (ranging from archaeological sites to entertainment facilities, ranked 26th).


Second, in key areas, SA’s tourism score is shockingly low. A key example is South Africa’s global ranking of 112/117 in Safety and Security. This reflects the extent to which a country exposes locals, tourists and businesses to security risks. Another clear area of weakness is passenger rail and port infrastructure (ranked 73rd).


Uplifting SA’s transport infrastructure and reducing crime would benefit a huge array of industries extending well beyond the tourism sector. This, in turn, would lift consumer and business confidence, encourage private sector fixed investment and create employment, thereby boosting government’s tax revenue collection and overall popularity. Yet government appears content to merely highlight its policy intentions, rather than implement key reforms.


Third, SA ranks a respectable 43rd in the world in terms of the price competitiveness of its tourism sector. It is known, internationally, as a relatively low-cost travel destination, although the market can accommodate both the budget-conscious traveller, as well as those tourists looking for a more luxurious experience.


Fourth, exploring the WEF’s detailed assessment of SA’s travel and tourism sectors, it can be argued that we are being underrated in a few key areas. These include a rating of 109/117 in environmental sustainability, which includes factors such as the protection of natural resources and exposure to weather-related events. While SA falls short in some areas, this ranking seems very harsh and undeserved. The same can be argued for SA’s ranking of 71/117 in tourist service infrastructure, which includes the availability of tourist accommodation, car rental, resort and leisure facilities and ATMs.


Fifth, the WEF’s Travel, and Tourism Development report does an excellent job in highlighting the correlation between the development of the tourism sector and a very broad range of social, economic and policy metrics. For example, the reliability of police services matters much more to the development of tourism than the cost of hotels. Exploring these relationships can help to identify the most important areas for development.


Overall, SA’s tourism sector is in the process of recovering from the impact of the COVID-19 restrictions. Domestic flights have increased substantially relative to 2020, and on some routes (depending on the airline) business is back to around 70% of pre-COVID volumes. Unfortunately, while outbound international travel has also increased meaningfully, inbound international travel continues to lag.


SA’s tourism industry represents a major growth opportunity, and the sector has the ability to add significant employment, given its high level of labour intensity. There are strong forward and backward linkages to other key economic sectors that tend to have a low import intensity.

The most obvious top five areas requiring more a responsive, innovative, and caring set of policy reforms are electricity supply, transport infrastructure (including public transport), measures to combat crime and violence, provision of water and sanitation, as well as education linked to the requirements of individual industries.


Hopefully, government starts to recognize the urgency of policy reform, and is willing to more fully embrace the private sector in partnering to unlock SA’s economic potential.


This article was published by the Business Day on the 14th of June 2022. Click here to view it. 

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