Unpacking SA tourism numbers
In April President Jacob Zuma glibly announced to a crowd at the V& A Waterfront in Cape Town: “The country that used to be a pariah state is now attracting more international visitors each year.” The president said that in 1993 foreign tourism stood at a mere 3.4m. “By 2012,” he added, “the f igure had grown 300% to 13.5m visitors, of which 9.2m were tourists.” Zuma congratulated himself and the industry, saying he was “extremely happy with our tourist arrivals figures” and described tourism growth in South Africa as “phenomenal”.
To be a little more specific, the 2012 number was 9.188m international tourists. The 10.2% improvement on 2011 couldn’t be argued, and given that 2010 was the year of the FIFA World Cup, 20+% growth since that tournament cannot be questioned either. Visiting CNN Business anchor Richard Quest echoed Zuma in praising the growth figures and credited Tourism South Africa for doing a “blindingly good job”.
However, a closer inspection of the figures by eNews Channel Africa host Eleni Giokos revealed the following on 17 May:
Six and a half million of the 2012 fig
ure are foreign visitors from South Africa’s neighbouring countries:
1. 1.8m from Zimbabwe (up 19%)
2. 1.6m from Lesotho (up 6%)
3. 1.1m from Mozambique (up 2.1%)
These three countries represent more than 4.4m visitors, which represents 68% of the total number of tourists from other African countries. While Quest called Giokos “elitist” for not taking these regional visitors seriously, Giokos pointed out that Lesotho’s entire population is less than 2.2m. Can you call it tourism when the equivalent of 73% of a country’s total population visit in a year, especially when that country is one of the poorest in the world?
The same could be asked of Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Zimbabwe is officially the third-poorest country in the world (2011 GDP per capita is $ 487) and Mozambique the fourteenth-poorest ($1 085). Are we talking tourists or migrants? How much money do they spend while in South Africa, and how much do they take with them when they go back? Do they work while in SA? And do they stream back to their home country at the same rate at which they entered?
The less impressive side of the numbers was glossed over at the end of the president’s speech, wrapped in some generalised feel-good mumbo jumbo: “Regional Africa remains the pillar of our tourism economy,” he said, “and we are happy to see that arrivals from the region have maintained
the solid growth path we have become accustomed to. Africa’s importance to our tourism industry will continue to grow, as African economies are amongst the best performing economies in the world at the moment.”
However, the three economies that contribute most of the “tourists” to South Africa most certainly don’t count “amongst the best-performing economies in the world at the moment”.
At face value, a 300% increase over 20 years in the number of inbound tourists, from 3.4m to 9.2m a year, is impressive. This represents an average annual increase of 15%, but in absolute terms the figures are less impressive.
In France, by comparison, the Eiffel Tower in Paris alone attracts 6.7m tourists a year; the whole of France almost 80m. Mexico, a country more readily comparable to SA, attracts 23m tourists per year. Singapore, a tiny country of only 710km2, is the twentieth most-visited country in the world and attracts more tourists than SA with its 1m km2. Clearly size is not the issue. And while spectacular natural scenery will always pull the crowds, the world’s biggest tourist drawcards are predominantly manmade structures or attractions.
Thus it should come as no surprise that SA’s busiest tourist attraction is the V& A Waterfront, not Table Mountain. Does our tourism marketing mirror these numbers?
A BRIDGE TOO FAR
At 10.2% in 2012, SA’s tourist numbers are growing by more than twice the global average, which was estimated at 4% by the UN World Tourism Organisation in the same year. If tourists from other African countries are excluded, the growth rate is an even more impressive 15.1%. For how long can South Africa keep up this aboveaverage performance?
Given the recent decline in the exchange value of the rand, SA’s popularity as a destination should grow among tourists with a stronger currency. However, it’s just as well Zuma made his announcement in the last week of April. The figures for January of this year came out a month later, and these don’t look good at all. The biggest drop in tourist numbers came from our most important source market, the UK, which plummeted a huge 18.66%. Germany dropped 6%, China 3.52% and the Netherlands also more than 18%. Overall, overseas visitor numbers decreased by 3.66%, or from 210 253 in January 2012 to 202 548 in January this year. Fortunately, a few markets bucked the trend, including the US (up 2.67%), Brazil (up 12.55%) and India (up almost 15%).
Even so, a large proportion of those that are counted as overseas tourists are in reality merely travellers in transit. Stats SA defines a tourist as someone who spends at least 24 hours in South Africa. For example, 38.5% of Chinese arrivals and more than 42% of Brazilian arrivals were travellers in transit, but were counted as tourists.
But according to Chris von Ulmenstein, who operates Whalecottage.com, SA’s first branded guest house portfolio: “[The transit statistics do] not apply to Indian tourists, the 15% increase in arrivals from this country ref lect[s] the great work which is being done by SA Tourism in that country. Its head, Hanneli Slabber, has just been recognised as Safari India National Tourism’s ‘Best Professional in Marketing’.”
The reality of SA’s industry further emerges when direct spending by tourists is used as a measure. Despite the 10.2% increase in the number of tourists, these visitors spent only 7.6% more than in the previous year. Tellingly, regional tourists spent 2.3% less than the previous year. The average length of stay also diminished by almost a full night, from 8.5 nights to 7.6.
Since tourism from overseas has not done as well as we may have hoped, what can be said for domestic tourism, in other words, South Africans travelling in their own country?
SPORT AS A DRAWCARD
During the recent rugby match between the Bulls and Cheetahs in Bloemfontein, the Free State stadium enjoyed a nearcapacity crowd of 32 000. Sport is a big driver of local tourism, and not just for the big teams in Gauteng and the Western Cape.
Popular Port Elizabeth blogger Alan Straton (mype.co.za) says: “Up until Friday night 15 March 2013, a total of 527 529 rugby fans had attended 24 games at 11 stadiums in SA, Australia and New Zealand. In comparison to AAMI Park in Melbourne, Australia, the local Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium crowds are topping attendance figures and account for 104 134 of the 527 529 fans that have attended live games – at an average stadium capacity of 75%. AAMI Park has hosted 37 173 fans at an average stadium capacity of 41%.”
By comparing the three countries in the Super Rugby competition, Straton also points out these interesting attendance figures:
1. Games in South Africa: 231 721 spectators filled an average of 69% of sta- dium capacity after seven games hosted (with an average attendance of more than 33 000)
2. Games in Australia: 189 653 at an average of 49% of stadium capacity after after 10 games hosted (averaging less than 19 000)
3. Games in New Zealand: 106 173 at an average of 46% of stadium capacity after seven games hosted (average of just over 15 000)
What’s more, Straton says, Port Elizabeth’s Nelson Mandela Bay stadium maintains the highest attendance of all Super
Rugby Venues for this period, at more than 75% after three home games.
Smaller sporting codes, which receive much less television coverage, are also attracting substantial crowds. In Kimberley in the Northern Cape, for instance, the Maloof Money Cup, a skateboarding world championship held in 2011, attracted more than 15 000 people over three days, including international competitors. The BMX World Championships and Mountain Bike Championships held recently in Pietermaritzburg and the annual Ironman competition in PE also attracted international visitors. This also counts for mass-participation events like the Comrades and other marathons, the Argus bicycle race (the largest single-day timed cycling event in the world) and the Cape Epic, which has a very high proportion of overseas competitors. Spending by competitors in such events, both local and international, tends to be high, especially when they’re accompanied by their families.
TOO FEW BIG SPENDERS
Much of SA’s tourism industry relies heavily on the aff luent overseas tourists that are supposedly landing on our shores in droves. The reality is that this sector is often strug- gling. An example is Plettenberg Bay, a playground of South Africa’s wealthy.
Liz Phillips, who runs a five-star establishment just outside the town, points out that many top-end places in the area are closing down.
One of Plettenberg Bay’s most prestigious luxury hotels, The Plettenberg, has closed down for this year’s winter. In May 50 staff members were retrenched and the owners concede that The Plettenberg has not been viable “for some time”.
Tony Romer-Lee, chief executive of the hotel group The Collection by Liz McGrath, said recently: “We have been putting in money for a number of years to keep the hotel operational, but we have to be realistic. The Plettenberg functions at the luxury end of the market, and if we are to keep up its standards, then closing the hotel during winter is the only option.”
Phillips’ own business, Fynbos Ridge, is partially sustained by a number of regular high-end foreign visitors, mostly British, German and Dutch, many of them travelling with their families. “The South Africans are a lot more price sensitive,” says Phillips, “and they tend to respond mainly to special offers. But we still offer good value to the overseas market. They get a lot for what they pay. Some bed-and-breakfasts have decided to go a more marginal route in terms of their pricing, and so standards are slipping in some places.”
Another issue troubling domestic tourism is a lack of focus in many of the regional tourism off ices i n South Africa. Corruption is a problem, and means destination marketing is often left to operators to do themselves.
Despite this, the South African Government seems keen to develop t he industry both locally and internationally. At the end of May, the Minister of Tourism, Marthinus van Schalkwyk, was invited to lead a new UN World Tourism Organisation commission in Belgrade, Serbia, which will focus on tourism development.
Van Schalkwyk said at the time: “I believe it will be possible to unlock meaningful new financial resources to further our work in the tourism sector by dramatically scaling up our share of Official Development Assistance [ODA]. The tourism sector received only $124m of the
Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront
Pinnacle Point Golf Resort