Tourism: We can do even better

Douglas Gibson says something seems to have come right at OR Tambo

What has happened at OR Tambo?

What has happened at OR Tambo Airport (ORT)? Amidst seeming anarchy at ACSA board and senior management level, fights with the retiring chairperson and allegations against the CEO, at least something seems to have been put right at operational level.

I have been through the airport eight times in twelve weeks: three of the flights were local and five were international. Apart from one occasion recently when luggage from the BA flight from Port Elizabeth took forty-five minutes to arrive at the carousel, this after an hour delay in take-off from PE, each time I have been impressed by the improvement in the level of service.

Alec Hogg of Biznews recently commented favourably on the speedy service at the arrivals passport control. I have had the same experience and the efficiency, the speed and the friendly welcome compared well with recent visits to airports like Mauritius, Taipei, Manila, Singapore and Hong Kong.

Although Singapore, for example, and especially Terminal 4, is the last word in modernity and makes most other airports look more than a little tired, its self-check-in was not working properly and a lengthy queue followed by fingerprint machines that couldn’t pick up my fingerprints made the check-in process tiresome. Check-in at ORT on each occasion has been infinitely better and what has impressed has been the friendly helpfulness of staff, SAA, Cathay Pacific and BA, as well as people manning information booths. This has not always been the case in the past.

What we need now is similar service improvements at all our airports, hotels, shops and restaurants. It is amazing what a difference a smile and a friendly word can make, particularly to foreign tourists. Likewise, efficient and caring service always impresses. It makes tourists feel welcome and there is nothing better than word of mouth endorsements by visitors when they return home and tell their friends good things about our country.

I am not in favour of low wages paid to some workers in the hospitality industry; it is unfair exploitation to pay them anything less than a living wage but I am all in favour of tipping. This generally ensures better service and should mean that really good people are properly rewarded for excellence. The better the service, the bigger the tip, should be the norm. Equally, poor service should not be tipped at all. It is a self-discipline we all need to learn: it is too easy to go with the flow and tip even when the service has been below par.

Overseas tourists expect to be treated well. They want value for money. They want to be charmed and entertained. They want to see new things. They want, above all, to feel safe. South Africa ticks the boxes on many scores, especially that of world-class beaches, wild-life experiences, wonderful mountains, cultural and heritage sites, and friendly, charming people. Now we need to look at the other aspects because tourism and millions more visitors are just the injections that our economy needs. Tourism is the single easiest means to generate jobs for our job-starved people.

South Africa has a new/old minister of Tourism. Derek Hanekom was previously a minister who was fired because he did not like the corruption, the looting and the incompetence of government. Unlike others, who remained quiet in the Zuma cabinet for years and put up with everything, Hanekom spoke out, at least towards the end of the Zuma-era, and was dismissed for his pains. He is now back as minister and being very experienced, there is not much he does not know about what is required to promote our tourist arrivals to where they should and could be.

We could cope with several million more visitors each year; this requires a properly financed and managed department. Minister Gigaba, who single-handedly caused a major setback to tourism during his last tour as Home Affairs minister must be disciplined if he makes silly regulations. The new minister of Police ought to tell us what steps are being taken to safeguard tourists and tourist attractions and publish statistics showing how few visitors are victims of crime.

Having lived in Bangkok for four years, I know South East Asia quite well. Africa is not Asia and Thailand is not South Africa; it offers a quite different holiday experience but worth noting is the huge effort Thailand has made to promote tourism. When we arrived in Thailand in 2008, the country received 14.58 million tourists. Today, it receives 35.38 million tourists. Tourism generates between 9% and 10% of Thai GDP and brings in $53.7 billion in US dollars (R644 billion). Another interesting statistic about Thailand is that it has the lowest unemployment rate in the world: 1.1%.

Compare these figures with South Africa: Tourism contributes 2.9% to the GDP; it is larger than agriculture but smaller than mining and construction. One in 23 South African workers is employed in the tourist industry. We also have the highest unemployment rate in the world: 27.7%

Around 16 million tourists will visit this year, but a large proportion of those are from SADC countries, nearby, and many of those visitors, welcome as they are, spend a single day here, shopping and trading. Our focus needs to be on attracting higher spending tourists from Asia, especially India and China, from Europe and the Americas. With the right policies and active recruitment, using properly trained and informed personnel at our embassies worldwide, we could surely attract another five or six million tourists.

The DA announced at its recent Congress that its economic policies will be focused obsessively on job creation. Let’s see whether the Ramaphosa government will follow suit by picking the low-hanging fruit – tourism – and start growing the economy, thus providing the jobs that are so badly needed.

Douglas Gibson is a former opposition chief whip and a former ambassador to Thailand. His website is This article first appeared in The Star.