“South Africa is a leader in eco-friendly tourism”

Ahead of the Intra-African Trade Fair in Durban, South African Tourism Acting CEO Sthembiso Dlamini talks to Miliswa Cawe about the recovery of the country's tourist sector.

Tourism has suffered a number of setbacks in the previous couple of years, with the impact of Covid and the near collapse of the national flag carrier. But do you sense there is some light at the end of the tunnel?

We are seeing more signs of recovery and confidence in our markets as some key source markets are opening up to South Africa, with airline partners once again resuming routes to South Africa.

Key source markets for South Africa, such as the rest of the African continent with USA, Germany, France, the Netherlands and the UAE, having already lifted their restrictions. We therefore expect international travel to pick up soon. We recently welcomed the announcement by the British government that South Africa has been removed from their red list.

Earlier this year United Airlines commenced a nonstop daily service between its New York hub at Newark Liberty International Airport and O.R. Tambo International Airport, representing an exciting development as this will boost South Africa’s efforts to continue to grow business events and leisure tourists’ arrivals out of North America. Qatar Airways also recently increased their flying frequency into South Africa to a total of 28 weekly flights between Doha and Durban, Johannesburg, and Cape Town

We welcomed the news that Kenya Airways and SA Airlink have an interline agreement that will widen both airlines’ reach to multiple destinations on the African continent, even as countries begin reopening their borders for travellers. Kenya Airways’ agreement with Airlink will provide its customers with enhanced connectivity via its gateways, Johannesburg and Cape Town, to more than forty cities across Africa.

Under this latest agreement, Kenya Airways customers flying to South Africa will be able to connect with Airlink-operated domestic flights to Windhoek, Durban, Gaborone, Maseru, Pemba, Maputo, Port Elizabeth, among others. Uganda Airlines’ Kampala to Johannesburg route started on May 31st with 4 frequencies per week.

More recently, our national carrier, SAA took back to the skies and started flying not only domestically but to some key regions on the African continent. This is most welcome and will bode well for increasing arrivals from the rest of the African region to South Africa.

Just this month, Etihad Airlines has made an announcement after a year-long absence that they will start flying direct to Johannesburg and Cape Town from November this year with three flights a week on Mondays, Thursdays and Sundays.

As a Destination Marketing Organisation, we continue to work hard in positioning South Africa as a safe and welcoming long haul destination and the vaccine roll-out is critical in this regard. Government is making strides with the second phase of the roll-out underway.

A recent trend in tourism has been the growth of inter-Africa visitors. Do you expect this to continue with the free movement of people under AfCFTA post the pandemic? What other benefits do you believe AfCFTA will bring to SA Tourism?

Yes, we expect this to continue as the rest of Africa is our biggest source market with over 70% of our arrivals coming from the rest of the continent. We also know that immigration regulations formed a big part of our barriers so we are encouraged by the landmark African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement.

As South Africans we will never forget that our fellow Africans have contributed to developing our economy and that of the rest of the continent. Similarly, South Africans are helping to develop economies across the continent. The continent’s economies are interlinked and we will continue to work together for increased trade and investment that benefits everyone.

All South Africans, have a greater appreciation of people from other countries and we know that we are not an island. The rest of Africa is valuable region and market for South Africa. We value our business relationships and partnerships we have cultivated with all our travel trade partners across the continent and we are committed to continue investment in the markets through joint marketing initiatives to attract travellers to South Africa.

Increased free movement brought about by the AfCFTA agreement provides an opportunity for Africans to explore each other’s countries. We know from our insights that most of Africans’ purpose of visiting an international destination is to visit different places, shopping and cultural exchange.

We know that those who have visited South Africa were attracted to the country by a variety of factors which aligned to their international travel needs. This means that South Africa is able to offer travellers from this continent what they need in a travel destination.

It is a big question, but do you think the COVID vaccine rollout will have a direct bearing on the inter-Africa tourism market?

Yes, I believe so. South Africa’s vaccination drive and roll out as well as the introduction of a secure and verifiable vaccination certificate will indeed facilitate travel and will hopefully help relax travel restrictions imposed on South Africa by other countries. It will also contribute in instilling confidence with travellers who want to visit South Africa. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has also once again highlighted the need to carve an even closer working relationship between private and public sector tourism role-players to reignite the tourism sector. We all must work hard to boost inter-Africa travel in this regard thus partnerships and collaboration are key.  

Over and above the vaccine rollout, a new post-COVID tourism sector must rely more on digital technology, stringent health and safety standards and new ways to package travel, particularly for the outdoors. To achieve this and to grow inter-Africa tourism, industry players need to work together.

In light of the COP26 summit, how is SA attempting to mitigate the environmental impact of its tourism industry?

As a country, we are committed to sustainable and responsible tourism practices. We are an industry committed to making a low impact on the environment and local culture, while helping to generate future employment for local people.

South Africa is a leader in sustainable and responsible tourism. South African Tourism is a firm supporter of sustainable, eco-friendly and green tourism in the country. Responsible tourism is inherently part of the South African holiday experience.

How important are the creative industries in developing SA tourism?

The creative industry is a huge part of the knowledge economy promoting economic growth and job creation. Linking the creative industries with tourism can boost demand and stimulate innovation in tourism experiences inspiring a revitalisation of tourism products and experiences and further making the country more appealing to travellers.

Moreover, the creative industry contributes in positioning our country’s scenic beauty, promotes social integration and showcases our culture which have a huge interest for travellers to the destination. As the tourism sector gradually reopens it is really important that we position ourselves to the world in a way that stands out, and one of the best ways to do is through showcasing our culture.

We are already seeing this through the likes of the Netflix cultural affinity study which found that once people see South Africa featured in a film or a TV series they are up to 3.1 times more likely to visit South Africa.

It is important that as we come out of the pandemic that we ensure that the world knows what we have to offer to tourists who would like to visit Africa and South Africa. We are a continent filled with a rich tapestry of history, culture and storytelling. Through the creative industry, we can invite the world to experience the South African difference for themselves.

Are you employing any special measures to ensure IATF participants’ safety?

The greater South African tourism sector collaborated in developing a comprehensive health and safety protocols guideline for the operation of all types of tourism businesses and facilities. The protocols align with the World Health Organisation (WHO), National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) and the Department of Health’s guidelines and advice. They cover customer information, Personal Protective Equipment, physical distancing, and sanitisation and hygiene practices, among others, for staff and customers.

We are ensuring the safety of visitors through the continued and consistent implementation of these protocols. Non-pharmaceutical measures, such as mandatory wearing of masks, social distancing, ventilated spaces and reducing the number of guests in venues have all been legislated to ensure that we prevent the super-spreading instances that are largely responsible for the spread of COVID-19.

All travellers coming into our country need to present a negative COVID-19 test not older than 72 hours from their country of origin. All airports in South Africa are fully equipped to ensure the safety of all travellers entering and leaving the country. Upon arrival, all visitors will be screened for any COVID-19 symptoms by Port Health.

This screening includes a questionnaire prior to disembarking the flight as well as a temperature check. Should the traveller’s temperature be over 37 degrees Celsius or exhibit any symptoms, secondary screening will be conducted, at the traveller’s cost. All our airports have visible sanitising stations as well as agents offering passenger sanitisation.

All travellers are encouraged to abide by all COVID-19 health and safety protocols including sanitising of hands, wearing of masks and social distancing.

The landmark African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement has the potential to create a continental free-trade zone with a combined Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of USD$3.4 trillion, according to the African Union (AU). The AfCFTA is one of the flagship projects of the First Ten-Year Implementation Plan (2014-2023) under the AU’s Agenda 2063 The Africa We Want.