AFRICA TRAVEL INDABA LAUNCHES
WORDS AND IMAGES: SHIRLEY LE GUERN
Just two months into her job as Minister of Tourism, Patricia de Lille opened the Africa Travel Indaba with her trademark humour and a strong call to action both for South Africa’s tourism sector and for the continent as a whole. We share some of her observations.
The brollies are down, the rain in Durban has been exchanged for the city’s trademark sunshine and the Africa Travel Indaba 2023 – the first fully fledged event since the Covid-19 pandemic – is now officially underway.
The event, which traditionally brings together the engine room of the travel sector and is not open to the general public is far more than an opportunity for KwaZulu-Natal and Durban to showcase its wares to the world. It is an opportunity to bring buyers and service providers across the industry together, to discuss policies and potholes that may lurk along the way. But, most of all, it is a forum to do business.
However, not even a perfectly choreographed opening ceremony that culminated in the ringing of a bell to signal the beginning of what is regarded as Africa’s premier tradeshow kept the newly appointed Minister of Tourism, Patricia de Lille, from calling things as they are.
To her fellows in the South African tourism industry, she declared: “Let’s keep on pushing. Let’s stop this bickering. It’s very unfair of you to come and complain to me when I have just been there for two months. You have got the experience of the sector. You are there every day. Give us the solutions and a plan of action. Let us deal with the solutions because we must all work together.”
Although she thanked the very many members of the sector who have met with her to show her just what is happening behind the scenes. She is trying to get up to speed as quickly as possible, she admitted.
The most meaningful observations were, of course, the unscripted parts of her speech which came towards the end.
Having met with the Ministers of Tourism from the 21 countries attending the Indaba, she welcomed their representatives and contributions – but not without telling them not to disappear before signing a plan of action. Without it, the discussions in the lead up to the Indaba opening would have been “just another talk shop” she warned.
“I’ve made notes of all the suggestions of all the African tourism ministers and I want the ministers to sign a commitment that we are going to work together. Next year, when we come back to Durban, we will be reporting what we have done,” she said.
De Lille also urged her local and African counterparts to learn from what is happening in East Africa which has already recovered to the point where it has exceeded pre-Covid travel levels. “What are they doing right? One of the things that I have noticed is that they offer incentives. We have to learn from what is happening in East Africa and apply that in our own country,” she suggested.
Her next salvo was to government as she urged delegates to do what they do best – business. “In government, we are not in the landscape of doing business. But we are here to support you. Government must create the conditions regulatory and otherwise. Government must create the conditions conducive for the private sector to create the jobs. Government alone cannot create jobs. We need to partner with the private sector,” she said.
REPOSITIONING THE INDABA
As part of her script, De Lille acknowledged that it was time to reposition the Africa Travel Indaba in the wake of the pandemic. The aim is for the Indaba to to exceed its own pre-Covid achievements. With an estimated 6 000 people attending from all over South Africa, Africa and the rest of the world, 350 tourism products being showcased, 1000 buyers from across the tourism ecosystem and just under 1 000 exhibitors attending, this is within reach.
Attendees include destination marketing bodies, hotel groups, airlines, tour operators, and 10 African Tourism Boards as well as representatives from 21 African countries.
In the spirit of working together, de Lille focussed on the topic of competition and collaboration with more strong words.
“Competition is often considered the lifeblood of destination marketing and tourism. However, it is important to note that competition should always be balanced with collaboration. While healthy competition can drive growth and innovation, unhealthy competition can lead to a race to the bottom, with businesses and destinations undercutting each other on price and quality. Therefore, as the tourism industry, let us foster a culture of healthy competition, where businesses and destinations are encouraged to compete on quality and innovation.
“Let us remember that long-term success in the industry depends not only on competing but also on recognising the value of collaboration and partnerships. And so, each player in the value chain has a unique role to play, and by working together, we can create seamless and memorable travel experiences for visitors,” she noted.
Included in that is supporting the sector’s small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs). Pointing out that the Department of Tourism had invested R11.7 million to enable 123 small businesses to participate at the Indaba, she quickly added that it could do better – and then urged provinces to also sponsor SMMEs to showcase their products.
Observing that updated statistics were imminent, De Lille nevertheless observed that South Africa had seen encouraging growth in tourist arrivals between January and December 2022. These reached nearly 5.8 million visitors. What was key, she noted, was that over 4 million of these came from within Africa.
“So, the performance is good but there’s always room for improvement. Let us set the bar high and work to achieve that. Africa’s Travel Indaba provides the ideal platform for us to collectively showcase our African products and experiences. It is the most valuable platform for all of us to meet face-to-face, do business with the most influential partners in the world and access Africa’s excellence and endless possibilities. The business opportunities and quality connections gained at this trade show will certainly shape Africa’s tomorrow,” she continued.
CHALLENGES TO OVERCOME
That said, de Lille pointed out that there were challenges. Visas was the first for discussion.
“We must harmonise the visa regime across the continent to make it easier for visitors to move from one country to another. The visa problem is not just a South African one, it is an African one,” she said, urging her counterparts to work with her to address this problem.
Her advice was the simplification of the e-visa application process and the reduction of visa costs to make Africa a more attractive destination for both Africans and international travellers.
Another critical area, she added, was airlift. Although Africa is one of the strongest performers when it comes to air connectivity, she noted that growth has been uneven with some regions and countries having better airlift connectivity than others.
“I am looking forward to working with various partners in reducing the high cost of air travel in the continent as we know that this deters visitors and thereby limits tourism growth,” she said.
Positive changes, she noted, included the fact that African airlines are expanding their fleets and routes to meet the growing demand for air travel with direct flights to South Africa gathering momentum.
Sustainable tourism was next on De Lille’s list.
“We must prioritise sustainable tourism practices that address climate change, protect our environment and cultural heritage while promoting economic development,” she urged, adding that, through her department’s Green Tourism Incentive Programme (GTIP), private sector tourism was being offered incentives when it came to managing electricity and water resources through the installation of solar systems and water saving technologies.
“We must invest in sustainable tourism to protect communities’ natural resources, cultural heritage, and social fabric while creating economic opportunities. Again, collaboration and partnerships between African countries and the public and private sectors will be critical in achieving this objective. We must also prioritise innovation and technology, which can help us develop and promote our tourism offerings more effectively,” she said.
Observing that both the Tourism Sector Recovery Plan 2021 and the Economic Reconstruction and Recovery plan of 2020 were underway, De Lille fired one more salvo.
“We’ve got the plans. Our challenge now is implementation. That is how we are going to succeed. No more new plans. We’ve got enough plans,” she declared.