Every year, at about this time, the hospitality industry goes into a flurry of activity getting together reports about the industry’s performance during the busy end-of-year season. The Airports Company of South Africa releases figures for international and domestic arrivals at Cape Town International Airport during December, hotel companies total their bookings and occupancy levels, and the major attractions provide insight into the number of visitors they recorded. As an industry, we then reach conclusions about how we fared against the previous years.
In recent years, I’ve come to wonder how valid all this is. Firstly, because I question whether the figures we are presented with give a full and accurate picture and, secondly, because the focus on the numbers tends to take our attention away from the things that I think may be a lot more important.
So, let’s take a deeper look at this:
Credibility of the statistics
One of my concerns is that we rely on the Airports Company’s statistics for incoming domestic tourists, but this cannot be the full picture in terms of the local tourist market. After all, many South Africans drive to Cape Town from their home towns elsewhere in the country, and there are small numbers who take the train or bus. How can we measure the number of domestic visitors if we take into account only those who arrive by air?
In addition, we tend to look at the percentage drop or increase in isolation of other information. So, for example, this year Robben Island reported a drop of 15% in numbers from the previous year; it’s a significant drop so many people would conclude that the reason is that fewer tourists visited Cape Town and that caused the drop in visitor numbers to this particular site. But when you look at the figures in more detail, it’s clear that the drop cannot be linked to lower numbers of tourists - it is, in fact, because of poor weather conditions during the month that meant a number of the boat trips were cancelled.
If not the numbers, what should the hospitality industry focus on?
I think that the industry would be better off putting all the energy that goes into producing and analysing the numbers into the issues that could ensure growth in South Africa’s tourism industry.
Tourists will visit a destination if it meets their needs in relation to:
- The quality of the experience
- Their safety and security
- The price of a holiday in the destination
- Ease of access both to and inside the destination country
As an industry, we have achieved many successes in relation to these issues, but we definitely still have to take the steps necessary to give South Africa a reputation as a safe destination. This should receive far more focus from both government and the private sector, and we need to see all elements of the chain doing their best to counter the criminality besetting our tourist industry. This includes, for example, more visible policing, a more effective justice system that will result in criminal convictions quickly and meaningfully, and stronger actions against xenophobia.
Many players should also think hard about appropriate pricing. Just because a traveller may have access to pounds or euros doesn’t mean that higher prices should be charged: one of the big attractions for foreign visitors to our country is the value-for-money holiday that’s possible when they can benefit from the exchange rate. When some in the industry exploit this, it harms many other players because we may develop a reputation for being an expensive destination.
Access to the country has improved significantly in recent years, largely as a result of the Air Access Programme. Internally, however, we can do a great deal more to make travel easier. We are a country ideal for distance rail travel, yet our State-owned rail service is abysmal and the private providers are priced at rates beyond the pockets of most visitors. This is an issue that the industry should be lobbying government about - we could be adding yet another sought-after experience that tourists will embrace.
From the industry’s side, I feel that we should also be looking at the seasonality concern in more depth. I’d rather see slightly lower numbers in peak season but with a greater spread of tourists across the year. Hotel rooms and iconic sights are there both in high season and when it’s quieter so let’s aim to push up occupancy during the quieter months. Our destination marketing companies should be working with industry to put together packages and events to attract more travellers in the months that are generally quieter.
Tourism is one of very few industry sectors that has the potential to grow. Let’s embrace the opportunity and work together to turn this into reality.