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South Africa’s Tourism Landscape: 30 Years into freedom!

This year, South Africa celebrates 30 years of freedom providing a great opportunity for reflection. The tourism landscape in South Africa has transformed immensely since the 1994 democratic breakthrough. Not only has transformation, spearheaded by the government through deliberate policy and programmatic interventions, opened up new vistas for the sector, it has ensured that the sector is opened up and truly reflects the demographics of South Africa.

Premised on the National Development Plan (NDP) and the review of the Tourism Sector Master Plan, the transformation of the sector is not only the statement of a policy position, but a lived experience for many previously excluded tourism businesses.

In his State of the Nation Address (SONA) last month, President Cyril Ramaphosa, reflected on the last 30 years stating that “the past enables us to better understand the present and it inspires the actions we must take to build the future”.

From a tourism perspective, over the past 30 years of freedom, new terms have found their way into the lexicon of this sector. Township tourism, rural tourism and many others are sub-sectors in a sector that is the mirror which projects the beautiful diversity of South Africa’s heritage, scenery, culture and her people. Not only has the decisive action benefitted the consumers of South Africa’s tourism offerings, it has also introduced new players into the sector. New, innovative and exciting business concepts have also yielded great results. While there is still a lot of work to be done, the reshaping of the racial and gender dynamics within the tourism sector has indeed borne fruit.

Take the story of Kgabo Safari, for example. This is a story of transformation. Nestled in the verdant expanses of Pilanesberg and led by Bernard Marobe, a seasoned field guide with over three decades of experience, Kgabo Safari embodies the evolving landscape of tourism. He isn’t just a witness to the sector’s transformation; he’s an active contributor, living proof of the change legislation strives to achieve.

Marobe is a direct beneficiary of visionary and ambitious legislation like the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (B-BBEE) Act of 2003, which led to the formation of the Tourism B-BBEE Charter in 2005. This initiative aimed to weave previously marginalised individuals into the fabric of the mainstream tourism sector. Last year the Cabinet approved the Tourism Sector Master Plan which guides government and the private sector on the actions we are amplifying to stimulate demand through various actions including investment in new tourism products and infrastructure, removing obstacles to exponentially grow tourism numbers and the sector’s contribution to the country’s Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan.

To support growth of the tourism sector, the Department of Tourism has a number of incentive programmes to support businesses to thrive such as the Tourism Equity Fund, the Green Tourism Incentive Programme and the Market Access Support Programme for tourism SMEs. Other opportunities to provide training opportunities, especially to enable young people to break into the sector, includes annual training programmes such as hospitality, chef, food and beverage and sommelier accredited training.

Our efforts are achieving results as already South Africa has made a remarkable comeback as we saw international tourist arrivals from January to December 2023 totalling 8.5 million, representing a notable 48.9% increase when compared with the same period in 2022. We are indeed proud that arrivals from the African continent continue to lead the way as we welcomed 6.4 million visitors from the rest of Africa in 2023. Meanwhile, domestic tourism has already surpassed pre-Covid numbers and continues to be the bedrock of the tourism sector.

In a candid interview, Marobe expressed gratitude for the support he has received from industry players like the Department of Tourism, its entity, SA Tourism and the Northwest Parks and Tourism Board for enabling him to penetrate the market. Marobe, who is fluent in Mandarin, caters to specific overseas market demands with his fleet of vehicles. “I’ve got 10 seaters and 20-seaters,” he explains, acknowledging the Chinese market’s preference for communal travel. Currently, he can move 250 people at once, but he has ambitious plans to expand. “I’ve applied for funding to buy another eight game drive vehicles so I can move 350 people,” he shares with optimism. While conceding that there are still some barriers to market entry, Marobe insists that the mixture of service excellence and quality offerings always guarantees that one is ahead of the pack.

His dedication to growth and job creation is evident. He currently employs 20 people and predicts doubling that number by the end of the year, linking this growth to the gradual recovery from the pandemic’s effects. He sees a bright future for the sector and he proudly expresses his readiness to promote destination South Africa internationally. His commitment goes beyond mere business promotion. “When I go overseas, I don’t just promote Kgabo Safari; I promote my country first,” he emphasises, showcasing a deep-rooted patriotism. Another great tourism story from the last 30 years, is that of Sakhumzi. In the vibrant heart of Soweto, Sakhumzi Maqubela’s Sakhumizi Restaurant stands as a testament to South
Africa’s rich culinary heritage. Located on the historic Vilakazi Street in Orlando West since 2001, a street home to two Nobel Peace Prize laureates, Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Sakhumizi offers more than just delectable traditional South African fare.

It embodies community and resilience. “Our restaurant is more than just a place to eat; it’s where hearts meet, and the story of Soweto unfolds on every plate. We have 86 employees, serving approximately 600 people on Saturdays and up to 800 on Sundays.” “We have opened a new restaurant by the Dube Hostel and another one at Zoe Lake, Johannesburg, replacing Moyo Zoo Lake, now known as Sakhumzi Zoo Lake. “We serve an experience you can’t get in the Northern Suburbs, where only birds are chirping,” he adds revealing that big growth plans are afoot. Last but not least is the pioneering success story of Zandile Dhlamini, a tale of determination and innovation in the tourism industry. With 17 years of experience, she insists on the importance of creating an immersive experience for her guests. She recalls an “Aahaah moment” when she saw tourists on a bus parked in Soweto by the famous Vilakazi Street. They never disembarked from their bus – they simply took pictures and left. Then, in 2006, when South Africa won the bid to host the 2010 FIFA 2010, Dhlamini knew her time had arrived. By 2007, she had founded Aahaah Shuttle & Tours and was ready to take tourists on an unforgettable journey.

Recently, South African Tourism (SA Tourism) took Dhlamini, along with other Destination Marketing Companies, to the 20th annual India roadshow held across five cities in India. There, she met 500 travel agents in five cities across India and had an “awe-inspiring experience” that allowed her to tap into a new market. She explains that SA Tourism helps previously disadvantaged operators to “jump the queue” and deal directly with the end-users rather than “eating crumbs”. With her passion and experience, Dhlamini is now ready to conquer the Southern African Development Community region because the “sky is the limit,” she insisted.

Tourism is about authenticity, sustainability and inclusivity and freedom is at the heart of this sector. For South Africa to reap the rewards of a sustainable and buoyant tourism industry, we must continue to exercise and enjoy our freedom as we connect with each other and with visitors from various parts of the world. A true embodiment of the spirit of 30 years of freedom is when we explore our country and also open our hearts and doors to welcome visitors.

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