Sun, safaris and an ailing rand lure foreign tourists back to SA

29 May 2016 - 02:00 By PALESA VUYOLWETHU TSHANDU

South Africa's attraction for foreign tourists is showing signs of recovery, thanks in part to the weak rand, but the domestic tourism sector is in the doldrums.

Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom, speaking this week on the sidelines of a careers information event organised by Hilton Worldwide in Sandton, said the government had ring-fenced R110-million to spend on supporting domestic tourism this year.

He said the government would work with the private sector to try to make domestic travel more affordable for South Africans.

"This includes working with our partners in the private sector so that special deals are offered with airlines, hotel groups and with destinations themselves," Hanekom said.

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"We are in discussions with destinations, we have some arrangements to have free days for certain categories of people.

"For example, the cable car in Cape Town is offering a free trip [up Table Mountain] during your birthday month."

South Africa had an increase of 18.7% in foreign tourist arrivals in the first three months of the year, compared with the same period last year.

Last year, arrivals dropped in the wake of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa and hurdles raised for visitors by South Africa's stringent new visa regulations.

Hanekom said most foreign travellers to South Africa came from India, China and the US, which had seen "fantastic growth".

The tourism sector offered "a real opportunity to get South Africa out of the slow-growth scenario", he said.

"It is the one sector that benefits from the mix of the current exchange rate.

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"Despite the global economic challenges, tourism continues to grow globally and we have serious competitive advantage, in both the exchange rate and [what we have to offer]."

Hilton Worldwide is looking to build three to five new hotels in major cities in South Africa.

Jan van der Putten, Hilton's vice-president of operations for Africa and the Indian Ocean, said: "There is such tremendous growth in South Africa ... one of the challenges is how can you continuously update the offering for your guests to stay relevant in that particular part of the business."

Africa's biggest hotel and gambling operator, Tsogo Sun Holdings, in its results for the year ended March 31, reported 9% revenue growth to R2.7-billion in South Africa.

For markets elsewhere, revenue grew a healthy 25% to R671-million.

"Trading during the financial year reflected continued pressure on the consumer due to the weak macroeconomic environment and consumer sentiment, although revenues during the last quarter were significantly up on the prior year," said the company.

Van der Putten said that "from a tourism perspective, South Africa is taking the lead [in Africa]. But it would be fabulous to get more intra-Africa travel, and to get more intra-Africa travel you need more open skies."

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Foreign travel to South Africa has been encouraged by airlines such as Emirates, which has increased flights between Johannesburg and Cape Town, and Air China, which plans a direct flight between Johannesburg and Beijing.

But SAA is struggling to remain competitive.

SAA spokesman Tlali Tlali said there was no direct link between tourist numbers and the performance of SAA.

"When one considers that there are more than 26 airlines operating flights into and out of South Africa from all over the world, one begins to understand that it takes much more than just the performance of SAA for the tourism sector to be adversely affected," said Tlali.

Hanekom said the value of a national carrier lay in the opportunity it provided to offer routes "of strategic interest" .

He added: "You don't want it to be a burden on the fiscus, but there might be a case in certain instances [for] using it beneficially for strategic purposes, that go beyond immediate profitability."

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