SMEs key to tourism success according to SA Tourism CEO Sisa Ntshona

When SA Tourism CEO Sisa Ntshona was appointed almost a year ago, he said his mission was to support government’s strategic decision to wean the country’s economy off its reliance on resources and focus on service industries like tourism to help GDP growth. The former investment banker had statistics on his side – tourism numbers to South Africa had increased 13% from the previous year and a record-breaking 10 million international tourists had visited the country.

Then the GDP numbers released in June for the first quarter of 2017 showed that trade – particularly in catering and accommodation – had dipped 5,9% and contributed to sucking the country into a recession. It would be unfair to pin a failure to arrest that decline on Ntshona and his team – he’d only been in office since the previous October – but he’s now working hard to reverse the trend, echoing Malusi Gigaba’s “inclusive growth” plan and looking to create diverse tourism opportunities that encourage SME participation.

Ntshona is using his experience as Head of SME Banking at Barclays Africa to drive that inclusive growth.

“Tourism is a contact sport – you can’t automate it,” he says. “People are worried about the Fourth Industrial Revolution and being replaced by robots, but tourism is a natural mitigator of that.”

His plan is to grow the tourism pie and, by extension, SA’s GDP by introducing new players who can offer diversity. “By doing tourism differently, we can offer different experiences from different players across sectors – agriculture, health or township tourism. Tourism naturally lends itself to bringing in SMEs and start-ups, and developing exciting new experiences – that’s where we’ll hit the magic,” he says.

Ntshona wants every South African to understand the role tourism can play in the economy and the benefits it offers for infrastructure development. “Tourism touches so many sectors within the economy – from banking to construction, and agriculture to retail,” says Ntshona. He cites the example of Paris, where at any given time, there are more tourists than locals in the city. “This attracts direct foreign investment because when McDonald’s is looking at building new restaurants, they look purely at the number of feet – so there are material benefits for local people and local companies.”

He points out that tourism is ripe for SME development because it offers small businesses access to foreign markets they would previously only have accessed by getting on a plane and putting in the hard yards on international soil. “Tourism targets the market you want to sell to: puts them on a plane and exports them to you. And they’re ready to spend,” he says. “The tourism ecosystem brings in foreign currency and makes a direct contribution to the GDP.”

A key driver of the inclusive growth plan is linking unlikely partners – another trick from Ntshona’s SME days. “How do you link a Sun International with Aunt Dorothy’s B&B and help them collaborate? When a tourist calls a hotel and they’re full, they should be telling the customer they can’t help but they have a trusted network of nearby B&Bs they can refer them to,” he says. “Suddenly a major player has exposed an SME to the world via a partnership that costs them nothing and comes with no risk.”

One of SA Tourism’s major focus areas is boosting domestic tourism, which Ntshona believes will have knock-on effects for international tourism. “If we want all 54 million South Africans to become tourism ambassadors, we need our people to know our country. It was only some 30 years ago that the majority of the population needed passes to move from one city to the next, so mobility is not ingrained within the general population,” he says.

Creating a culture of travel and discovery gives the majority of the population the chance to explore their own country and, with that, to grow in confidence. “How do we instil confidence in black South Africans as they start coming through and make them feel welcome and accommodated? The reality is that there is no infrastructure deliberately built for black consumption. Our mission is to respect the audiences we’re trying to attract and give them opportunities to explore new places in new ways, while making sure we don’t force-feed the experience to them,” he says.

SA Tourism launched a new campaign in July called “I Do Tourism” which aims to foster that ambassadorial spirit among all South Africans. “The 2010 World Cup really galvanised South Africans; we were friendly, happy, and went out of our way to help foreigners find good places to eat or see the sights. We owned it,” says Ntshona. “Now we need to reignite that. Just as the guy who sweeps the floor at NASA believes he’s playing a role in putting a rocket into space, we need South Africans to become tour guides.”

It sounds ambitious, but not impossible. Sweden, for example, has set up an international phone number which anyone in the world can call to ask questions about tourism in that country. Callers are connected to knowlegeable Swedish residents who have signed up to discuss tourism options with potential visitors to help them make the right choices for their trip.

Of course, tourism is a big machine and there are many aspects that are beyond SA Tourism’s control. These include Home Affairs’ biometric bungle and the ill-planned paperwork requirements for travelling minors. “In every business I’ve worked in, the customer was the most important part and you need a customer-care division that is obsessed with looking after them,” he says. “We’re in the service industry and there will always be service failures, but the big thing is how you recover from those failures. We’ve set up a Visitor Experience Department which takes a holistic view of the tourism experience in South Africa.”

That experience starts when a tourist starts thinking of coming to South Africa, and extends to them making a booking, getting on a plane, arriving at one of our airports, dealing with immigration officials, getting to their hotel, booking an experience and eating in a restaurant. “If we think tourism starts when a visitor gets to the hotel, we’ve lost the plot. A visitor’s attitude is formed by all interactions they have on their journey. Ordinary South Africans are pivotal to that process and once we get that right, people will start to see the benefits of tourism for the country,” says Ntshona.

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