South Africa's competitiveness as a tourist destination examined

Posted on October 05, 2015

The South African government recognises the tourism sector's potential to create employment and bring about economic growth, and has prioritised this sector as one of the six core pillars of growth in the country’s New Growth Path framework. While this industry’s current performance is encouraging, one cannot ignore the fact that our tourism resources have much greater potential. In recognition of this the National Department of Tourism hopes that through their collective vision, namely to make South Africa one of the top 20 global tourist destinations by 2020, they will be able to carry the country’s tourism sector into the future.

The World Economic Forum's Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index (TTCI) is the measure by which a country's position as a tourist destination is normally determined. In the space of two years, from 2013 to 2015, South Africa rose in the rankings, from 64th to 48th position. This seemingly encouraging jump in the country’s ranking should, however, be viewed with caution. Professor Berendien Lubbe, Head of the Tourism Management Division at the University of Pretoria (UP), suspects that the country's upward move may simply be due to the fact that the measurements used in the index have changed after some indicators were added and others were removed.

Prof Lubbe explained that the TTCI is based on both statistics received from countries and data derived from opinion surveys.

A problem that developing countries often experience is a lack of statistics, or the poor quality of the available data when compared with the sophisticated datasets that developed countries have at their disposal. This will definitely have an impact on the rankings of the lesser developed country, regardless of how beautiful and enriching a tourist experience in that country may be. According to Prof Lubbe, this could explain why many tourist destinations in the developing world are often found at the bottom of the index.

‘While I do not dispute the value of assessing a destination on certain indices based on “hard data” and statistics, several problems arise when the tourism competitiveness of destinations is ranked on the basis of such a generic model’, Prof Lubbe commented. ‘If one of the indicators is the incidence of malaria, for example, South Africa performs much worse than Sweden does, simply because we have malaria-carrying mosquitos and they don’t. What about the insects that they have and we don’t?’

Furthermore, according to Prof Lubbe, destinations compete against relevant competitors, rather than generically against all 141 economies of the world. They also compete for market segments, rather than for the entire travelling population, who evaluate destinations based on their ability to provide similar experiences. For this reason source markets are crucial in establishing competitiveness.

In a recent study by Prof Lubbe and her team at UP, researchers set out to determine South Africa’s competitiveness by finding out how the country is performing against its competitors in terms of source markets. The team’s approach to the project was to look at what determines a tourist’s choice, rather than at what is regarded as important. The study covered a number of areas, such as what we are doing right (in both the public and the private sectors) and what we are doing wrong in the industry. According to Prof Lubbe, the merits of the TTCI are found mainly in evaluations of this type. The team investigated six source markets, three of which are still emerging (China, India and Brazil), and three traditional source markets (the UK, the USA and Germany). She presented her team’s findings at a public lecture presented at the launch of Tourism Month at the University of Venda at the beginning of September this year. The event was hosted by the Minister of Tourism, Mr Derek Hanekom.

The team began their research by asking South African tourism professionals which indicators they believed determine potential tourists’ decision to visit South Africa. The indicators were grouped under the following six factors: uniqueness of the product offering; safety and security; mobility and infrastructure; ease of access; public perceptions; and value for money. The team’s main objectives were to determine the effect of each indicator on South Africa’s competitiveness as a tourist destination, and to gauge the country’s attractiveness when compared to selected competitors on each indicator.

When compared to Australia and Kenya as its major competitors, South Africa’s wildlife was seen as one of the country’s most precious assets. It was, in fact, rated as an aspect that makes the country unique as a tourist destination, which of course has an extremely positive effect on South Africa’s overall competitiveness. In terms of the country’s wildlife offering, it further emerged that although South Africa was clearly seen as a much more attractive destination than Australia in this regard, the UK respondents felt that Kenya and South Africa were equally attractive. This, said Prof Lubbe, leads to the question, ‘How do we distinguish our country from Kenya?’

Research on what tourists want from a holiday destination has shown that relaxation is a primary motivation for travel, and that tourists are drawn to natural environments that offer some form of escape from routine responsibilities and stress. This might offer an opportunity for South Africa to distinguish itself from its competitors by providing tourists with opportunities for physical and psychological ‘restoration’, rather than trading purely on the country’s wealth of African wildlife.

‘How we care for our tourists, along with our humanness and our interest, has the capacity to restore; however, our irritability, our overcharging, our inefficiencies and sometimes our disrespect of one another, have the capacity to deplete – which might make tourists decide to seek restoration elsewhere,’ Prof Lubbe remarked.

According to the team’s results, the quality of local services has a positive influence on the country’s overall competitiveness and South Africa is perceived to be performing better than Australia, but again at the same level as Kenya.

In the UP team’s study, overall safety and security, especially crime, once again emerged as detrimental to South Africa’s competitiveness as a tourist destination. In terms of tourist safety, South Africa is perceived to be performing worse than both Kenya and Australia. This is clearly an area that is causing huge losses in opportunities, since safety and security concerns are one of the primary reasons given by tourists for not visiting the country. Prof Lubbe said that although much has already been said about this issue on many different platforms, the fact remains that as individuals our responsibility should be to practise ethical tourism in all its forms. She added that we need to take responsibility for our own treatment of tourists and should, with each small individual effort and outcry against crime and corruption, eventually build a strong and responsibly sustained industry.

On a more positive note, the team’s research showed that South Africa’s exchange rate may offer some opportunities as the country is perceived as a ‘value for money destination’, and far more so than either Australia or Kenya. The current exchange rate could lead to an increase in inbound tourism, but this is by no means certain, as price is not the only driver of travel. Although it seems obvious that the devaluation of the rand will negatively affect outbound travel, domestic travel could actually increase with traditional and emerging markets spending more time and money inside the country. According to Prof Lubbe, the value of the country’s diaspora market – in other words, emigrants returning home for a holiday while the exchange rate is so favourable for them – should also not be underestimated.

In 2014, South Africa topped both Australia and Kenya in terms of access – both physical access and visas – but unfortunately this picture has changed dramatically following the introduction of the country’s new visa regulations and the unabridged birth certificate requirement for children. The team’s results indicate that these problems are having an overwhelmingly negative effect, which means that, whereas one group of tourists could potentially increase, we are probably losing another (families).

‘Destination competitiveness is important,’ Prof Lubbe said, ‘but it is only possible if we build a relationship of trust and an environment of security for every tourist who makes the decision to visit our shores!’


Banner photo credit: Conservation Action Trust


- Author Ansa Heyl

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