Tourism is losing its place in the sun

13 September 2020 - 00:04 By CHRIS BARRON

Tshifhiwa Tshivhengwa, CEO of the Tourism Business Council, says if the government doesn't announce before the end of this week when SA's borders will open again for international tourism, the local industry will lose out on the lucrative summer season that began in September."We've been telling government and parliament since June that September is when we need to open. We've had no adequate response. Now we need them to announce a date."Every day that the international borders remain closed costs the industry R336m, he says. The borders have been closed since March 18.South African tourism lost R748m a day until domestic travel - which accounts for 56% of tourism spend - was allowed from July.When she announced "tourism month" at the start of September, tourism minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane said borders would open for international tourists "sooner than we are expecting", subject to risk assessments by "the experts". Tshivhengwa says this kind of statement is of no use to the industry at all."Soon is not a date. We don't need to open soon, we need to open now. Now, now, now."The industry itself has consulted widely with medical experts and scientists about the risks."I don't understand why a decision to open up this country has not been made, because there is no scientific reason whatsoever [to keep it closed]."He says he believes the industry has done enough to mitigate the spread of the virus. The urgent need now is to save the jobs that are still left in the industry.He's met with representatives of international airlines and they're ready to fly to SA, he says. He's met with ambassadors from European and African countries who say their people are ready to travel to SA."We have protocols in place and we've been exemplary in following the protocols. We've used technology, we've been training our people, we're ensuring compliance."We are ready to receive guests. We're already receiving guests from domestic tourism. There is no significant risk that international guests are going to pose."Zimbabwe has announced its borders will open for international tourists from October and Namibia and Malawi have made firm announcements."Many African countries are gearing up for opening. We are the last country on this continent that has not announced a date for reopening."Citing the example of Emirates, which is flying international tourists to Zambia, he says African countries that have opened for international tourism are going to capture the market while SA waits for the cabinet to make a decision."We're no longer going to be the hub of Southern Africa if we continue to delay the date of reopening."Since June the Tourism Business Council, which Tshivhengwa, 41, joined in 2018 after more than 20 years in the industry abroad and in SA, has made comprehensive presentations to the president, minister and the portfolio committee on tourism, he says."We present the facts. The problem is we get no feedback. We've been largely ignored. The government needs to act fast. We can't have this drip, drip, drip. "We need to make decisions and be intentional about decisions. We can't on one hand say we need to save jobs but then on the other hand fail to make the decisions that would save jobs."Even the decision to open domestic borders came very late in the day, he says."We'd been advocating for them to open them earlier. We were probably a month late in opening for domestic leisure travel."He says in spite of the industry's best efforts "there is still no full understanding in government what tourism is and does. There has to be an urgency about understanding the industry's contribution to GDP and jobs."We have been singing this song to everyone in government, reminding them that tourism contributes 8.6% of GDP and 1.5-million jobs."He says there is no excuse for the government's failure to appreciate the importance of the industry and the impact on the economy when it's not functioning."They can read the documents. They can see the numbers showing the businesses closing down, the jobs bloodbath."We're simply saying to them: read what we have shared with you. That's why we don't need to open soon, we need to open now."About 300,000 people in SA work in the inbound international travel space, he says."They're dependent on international travellers coming to SA in our summer season, which is starting in September. "If we miss that boat half of them will have to go."This is in addition to the 50,000 who have already lost their jobs, he says.By merely announcing a date, the government will enable tour operators to start trading and receiving deposits."Right now they're sitting there waiting. All they've had from government is that 'we will open up the borders soon'."He says the government doesn't take tourism as seriously as its role in the economy demands."Tourism is one of the top net job creators. But there's this lack of understanding in government of what tourism is and how it creates jobs. It's seen as an industry where people have fun and travel around and go places. They don't equate that with job creation. And more so in rural areas."The government still needs to understand that when people travel and go to restaurants, hotels, lodges and B&Bs, they create jobs."People in government must take this industry at least as seriously as they take mining, manufacturing, agriculture and retail. They need to understand the relationship between tourism and these other sectors and how much tourism benefits them."He says he believes the government's dismissive attitude to tourism, seen also in the damaging unabridged birth certificate debacle, is also due to a lingering perception that it is a white industry.But the small and medium-sized businesses that dominate the industry and are closing in their thousands due to the lockdown and border closures are businesses that were contributing to transformation."Tourism is an entrepreneurial-based industry which is integral to the process of transformation."He says a change of attitude by the government could see tourism's contribution to GDP rising to 12% in the next five years."But government must play its part."Business Times invited comment from the department but received no response.

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