Tourism in South Africa can be better


I read with great interest the opinion piece by Busani Ngcaweni in the Business Day of 9 July 2019.  In it, Ngcaweni quite rightly recognises tourism as a key economic grower and employment driver.  However, it is clear that the Department of Tourism is talking the talk but is not walking the walk. Statistics do not lie.

The reality is that tourism in South Africa is not growing at the rate it should be.  Last year South Africa struggled to meet its domestic and international tourist targets.  In 2018/ 2019 international arrivals dropped by 0,6% compared to the same period in 2017. In 2018 South Africa welcomed 6,7 million tourists from outside our borders. This is much less than the 11,2 million target set by South African Tourism. 

The reasons for this are clear, they include the need for unabridged birth certificates for minors, concerns about safety and security and visa issues are deterrents for travel to South Africa.  The inconsistencies of requirements of visa documents, the complicated and user-unfriendly processes and length of time in issuing of our visas have tourists traveling to destinations that require less red tape or that are visa-free. 

In the SONA speech last month, President Ramaphosa stated that government has set a target of doubling the number of international tourist arrivals to 21 million by 2030.  At this rate, and considering the fact that our numbers are shrinking, presently this target set by the President is unrealistic. Ngcaweni claims that government is working at reducing red tape.  The reality is exactly the opposite.

An example of this is the Tourism Amendment Bill, which has been available for public comment.  The Bill will allow the Minister of Tourism to interfere with short-term home rentals for tourists.  The Tourism department justifies this on the basis that it allows everyone to get “their fair share” – in essence a type of forced “redistribution of choice” from consumers who chose some hospitality providers, to others.

In reality short-term rentals, like Airbnb, have enabled people previously unable to make a living for themselves, to do so using their existing assets.  Now a family in a township, for example, can generate income by renting out a room in their house making them instant entrepreneurs without having to lay out capital that they do not have in the first place!

Ridesharing platforms like Uber did the same opening a whole new market for people in the transport industry.  Tourism in South Africa remains a strong economic sector which services such as Airbnb has benefited significantly by offering far greater choice in location and price to tourists, and allowing ordinary South Africans to become instant entrepreneurs.

Research in September 2018 suggested that 2 million guests have made use of Airbnb alone in South Africa since that platform started operating here.   This translates into over R3,8 billion in revenue for hosts, and R9,9 billion in broader economic activity, supporting over 22 000 jobs.  The guests mostly wish to experience specific neighbourhoods, such as townships and rural areas, meaning location-based Airbnb regulation has the potential to undermine the entire market. 

Given South Africa’s poor economic growth trajectory now is not the time to introduce more regulation on the economy.  Instead the economy should be allowed to breathe.  Entrepreneurs, particularly those in townships, must be free to use their assets as revenue-generators without being unduly undermined by the State.

It is time to convert the nice words that Ngcaweni talks about into action.

Manny de Freitas is a MP and the DA Shadow Minister of Tourism.