SA tourism has good reason to be upbeat

By Sisa Ntshona

ALL is not lost in ‘the year of the vaccine’ with the tourism economy, though challenged, proving remarkably resilient.

SA’s annual state of the nation address (Sona) provides us all a moment to reflect and take stock of our progress as a country.

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on global travel and tourism. However, we have been working hard to be at the forefront of the recovery.

We have seen an inevitable decrease in international arrival numbers into SA, driven by the trajectory of the pandemic, travel policies in key source markets, as well as travel advisories and bans. Many international airlines have also halted flights into SA and other parts of the world. This has unfortunately been exacerbated by inaccurate and sensationalist reporting in international media, particularly in the UK, which is one of SA’s key source markets.

As we have seen in other sectors across our economy, the effect of the pandemic has been devastating for employment and has resulted in the closing of businesses. But I still believe all is not lost, because in many ways there are reasons to be hopeful — both in the advances being made in combating the pandemic, and in the response to it from the tourism sector.

Thursday night’s Sona, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s fifth since he assumed office, gave us several reasons to be optimistic. Perhaps the most important development from a travel and tourism perspective was the president’s announcement regarding the introduction of e-visas for travellers coming from China, India, Nigeria, Kenya and 10 other countries.

In line with the president’s commitment to the use of information and communication technologies to improve delivery, e-visas will allow the management of the visa application process to take place entirely online, from the submission of applications and supporting documents, payments and the decision on the application.

This is a critical development for our industry, and addresses one of the major barriers to entry into our country. The World Trade Organization (WTO) has reported the expected increase in passenger numbers driven by the improved facilitation of visas at between five percent and 25 percent.

The African Development Bank’s fifth annual visa openness index report, released in December 2020, argues that increased open borders and cross-country mobility will be increasingly important for economic recovery.

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The World Economic Forum’s travel and tourism competitiveness report 2019 found economies that implemented policies related to lowering visa requirements have come closer to narrowing their gap with other destinations.

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There was also hope for SA’s economy offered in the form of the extension of the Temporary Employer/Employee Relief Scheme scheme. With many businesses closed or operating under challenging conditions, we hope the scheme will be extended to continue supporting workers in the tourism sector. This support would ensure that we are able to welcome international travellers the moment they wish to travel, otherwise we will lose them to competing country destinations.

In tourism circles we refer to 2021 as the year of the vaccine, and the imminent rollout of vaccines in SA highlighted in the Sona will be critical as we work to rebuild confidence in travel. We have committed to monitoring developments with regard to vaccines and will continue to keep our industry partners globally apprised of the progress.

Though the current environment for our vital tourism economy is challenging, I’m pleased to say the sector has proven to be remarkably resilient. We have been encouraged to see global airline partners, such as Qatar Airways, demonstrating their faith in the destination by increasing their flights to SA. Qatar has increased the frequency of its flights to Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg. We have also seen a survey with SA as the leading destination travellers from the UK want to visit once global travel begins to normalise.

SA Tourism, in collaboration with the broader tourism sector, has also worked hard during the pandemic to prepare the country’s tourism sector to come back in better shape than ever, while focusing on the generation of domestic demand to support the industry while international travel is limited. The president repeated his calls to buy local, adding momentum to our efforts to promote local tourism.

As part of our recovery, in 2021 and the foreseeable future, we will continue to focus most of our efforts and resources on domestic tourism. This aspect of the market has been critical to the survival of our industry, and I’d like to thank all the South Africans who have supported tourism and travelled responsibly.

The revitalisation of domestic tourism will ensure the sector continues to contribute meaningfully to the economy. Our domestic recovery will play a significant role in how we recover internationally.

Sisa Ntshona is South African Tourism chief executive officer