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Tourism will never be Helen Zille’s game-changer until there are lots of changes

It’s been an interesting first few days of travels, and one realises how much observations and thoughts are always formed by the experiences that went before.

What I observed in Montagu, my first stop, raised a red flag that was re-inforced throughout the Robertson Wine Valley.  The urgent imperative in SA today is to create meaningful jobs, empower people and give them new skills that will be a doorway to upwards mobility.

The point of the Khulisa “game-changers” programme that MEC Alan Winde has initiated, and that Wesgro is leading, is to identify the changes that can lead to considerable increases in the growth of the tourism industry, and especially the jobs it creates.

Driving between towns – Montagu, Ashton, Robertson, Barrydale and McGregor — gives one lots of time to think.  And I realised that none of these are in fact ‘tourist towns’.  They rely on the attractions of some wine farms (those that are open all weekend) and activities in the mountains and rivers.  Yes, people do go just to chill out, but they’ll stay in a place longer with something more that appeals.  I discovered that many weekenders leave the towns of the Robertson Wine Valley early enough on Sunday to head back to Cape Town via Franschhoek, where there are more places open to have fun and spend their money.  The towns and people in the Langeberg municipality lose out.

Is tourism in Montagu, for example, creating significant numbers of new jobs — more jobs than it did two years ago — in numbers that can be called game-changing numbers?  I don’t think so.  Because my new benchmark for ‘tourism towns’ is the amount of “buzz” there is on the main street.  How many shops — especially coffee shops — are still open on Saturday afternoons and Sundays, when most tourists visit?

Accommodation is not the tourism industry; it’s only a small part of that industry.  Only about a third of accommodation establishments are professionally-run businesses and the balance primarily support a lifestyle for the owners.  I’ll never forget a chairperson of a Local Tourism Office (LTO) telling me the only reason she opened an accommodation establishment was for the tax breaks it offered, with a bonus of meeting interesting people.  Most tourism organisations exist to promote and support these vested interests.

Attractions and activities are at the very core of tourism.  And they probably create – or could create — many more jobs than accommodation establishments do.  But are they open when tourists and travellers want to visit?  The majority of Robertson Wine Valley’s estates, hospitality and retail operations are closed from Saturday afternoon for the rest of the weekend.  Have these towns embraced a tourism ethic?  Do they give tourists what they really want?  I don’t think so.

A Real Game-changer — extended trading hours
And then I thought about the implications of extended trading hours, for more days of the week.  That means more staff and maybe even shifts.  Asking around showed that 25% in new work opportunities is a reasonable figure.

So imagine the extra impact: a possible increase in new jobs of 25% in retail and hospitality sectors with no expenditure on infrastructure?

It was Gert Lubbe of Montagu Country Hotel who pressurised Van Loveren Estate into opening seven days a week.  And they should be forever in debt to him – the turnover on the farm increased by 100% (from an already high base) by not closing at 12:30pm on Saturdays and staying open on Sundays.  And why was Van Loveren so successful?  When it comes to meeting the needs of the market, they are dedicated and utterly professional.  (Big kudos to Bonita Malherbe, their marketing manager.)

Small businesses in the attractions and activities sector have the ability to generate far more jobs than the accommodation sector because they outsource more; they rely on others in the community to fill the gaps they need filled to make their businesses work.  They are the real engine of entrepreneurship.  (And I’m starting to accumulate a number of case studies to prove this.)

Few tourism organisations have the ability to implement this because they basically serve only their own interests, and look to municipalities to increase funding of vested interests and the status quo.  How many local tourism offices have a game-changing plan?  But then, equally, how many municipalities have the first inkling on how to really drive tourism?

When the V&A Waterfront started, it heralded the start of extended trading hours for seven days a week for the first time in SA.  Tenants didn’t like it and it was tough on them.  When Victoria Wharf opened, it had the highest number of owner/operators of any major mall, and most succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.  And it established the Waterfront as the brightest destination on the African continent — no-one would ever think of going back to the old ways.

What Provincial authorities can do is to establish the hospitality (for all in service industries) training centres similar to those that were established in Kenya and Malawi with enormous success.   People in service industries need to be confident, engaging and understand the need for hard work.  Our tourism industry must be able to deliver world-class service especially if we are going to be successful with the growing Eastern markets, where service is “deeply ingrained in their culture.  It is a sacred duty.” ¹

Isn’t it time to start categorising towns?
If the towns I visited are not really ‘tourist towns’ what are they?

Maybe we should be categorising towns as Heritage towns, Getaway towns and Tourist towns?  And some towns, like Franschhoek and Stellenbosch, could be categorised as all three?  And some towns might only be classified as Business towns – many towns in SA have little attraction and exist primarily to serve mines, industry and as administrative centres.

Some towns don’t want to be, or cannot be, ‘tourist towns’ and tourism promotion is only geared to protecting the vested interests with no real emphasis on creating new jobs.  In McGregor, someone told me they don’t like tourists because they bath too often (rather than shower) and the village runs out of water.  Maybe that was an exaggeration or said in jest, but it portrays an attitude I have encountered before.  Over a dinner in Stanford about two years ago, one of the guests said she didn’t want to village to change at all because the only reason that she had moved there was because of its “sleepy hollow” character.  Can we afford to be that selfish given the inequalities in South Africa?  Can we ignore the real needs in our poorer communities?

Are Municipalities the dog in the manger?
Municipalities need to get clued up.  They need to focus on creating people-friendly spaces and environments, and thinking like shopping centre managers think – about driving the triple bottom line.    They might need creative new municipal bylaws but will definitely have to work in a different way with developers to get more civic and tourism benefit from new developments.  They – representing the public interest – need to decide on their place in the greater scheme of tourism and get the majority of businesses to buy into this.

Should LTOs receive funding to promote vested interests?  Or should they only receive funding from the public purse if they have a strategy to become a real ‘tourist town’?  This needs clear guidelines but the most important is the creation of tourist streets or tourism precincts that are open seven days a week, or at least when most tourists want to visit.

Do municipalities have the skills to tackle this when it’s an engineering mindset that dominates most decisions?  I don’t think so.  Maybe this is where Provincial authorities and organisations like Wesgro need to develop these skills so they can work with the municipalities.

Not every town can be — or wants to be — a Stellenbosch or Franschhoek.  Every town needs to find a realistic place in the scheme of things, but it’s the tourist towns and towns that commit to become tourist towns — with specific and significant job creation targets — that should receive the bulk of all tourism funding.  Towns need game-changing action plans.  There need to be key performance indicators that are measured.

Langeberg Municipality seems to be clueless when it comes to tourism, but it’s not clear whether the malaise lies in the political leadership or the management.  I’d like to know how many people they’ve approached for the tourism job at the Municipality (it’s been several) … and why they’ve never been successful in filling the position.  Are they frightened of someone who will rock the boat?  I was told several times while in the Valley that if you cross the Municipality, you just get closed out.

They are now going to be severely challenged to come up with their game-changing plan to maximise the opportunities of tourism.

So… this is no carefully-crafted strategy or set of proposals, but rather a lot of questions which need to be debated.  So please join the debate!

¹ Interview with Simon Anholt

6 thoughts on “Tourism will never be Helen Zille’s game-changer until there are lots of changes”

  1. This reminds me of a trip to Sutherland a few months ago. The weather closed in, no star-gazing, nothing else laid on at the SKA except a museum to wander around, and NOTHING going on in town. (Only a tour of the NG Kerk by pure coincidence ). Not a single cup of nice coffee anywhere in the town! Completely vas-aan-die-slaap. Sunday was dead and deserted except in the grounds of the NG Kerk. A very disappointing week-end. I won’t recommend anyone going to Sutherland unless they are absolutely guaranteed of nice clear skies.

  2. Well if you look at the provincial Tourism, Trade and Investment amendment act; visitors services was removed. I believe that from a marketing perspective, if you do not address the needs of the “client/visitor” then everything you do is fruitless expenditure. All your campaigns or as they call it strategies are not informed. Currently it is the busyness of tourism and not the business of tourism. They need to get the basics right and for that I must congratulate the OLD CTRU.

  3. The basic rule of any attraction is to be visitor focused. If visitors need you to be open on a Sunday because that is when they are in town – then any good attraction manager would respond to this need. However, attractions need to work together as most visitors want options – so all attractions in a small town would need to consider opening for longer so as to create a buzz.

    I go to Robertson at least 3 times a year for the past 6 years and i have never managed to stop at one of their Pad stalls because they are closed when i drive out ( late on a Friday afternoon) and closed when i drive back ( late on Sunday afternoon). That is loads of missed opportunities.

    One of the issues i would imagine for small attractions is that labour legislation asks for extra pay on a Sunday – so its a bigger risk for the operator to open.

  4. Words of wisdom from someone who’s heart lies deep within the tourism industry and despite years of battling cynicism, bureaucratic bullshit, detractors, pessimists and tourism nobodies, Carl still perseveres. His pursuit of a better tourism industry and its benefits for all must be commended. It is a worthy and important crusade. He knows what he is talking about because the walks the walk before he talks the talk. And he invites comment and contribution to his narrative – which more than can be said of those arrogant officials supposedly running key tourism boards, councils and promotion organisations.
    Listen to Carl and learn something…

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