Letter to the Editor: Time to take off the rose-tinted glasses

I interact with many tourism owners and players and the glowing version of the tourism industry portrayed by the Minister of Tourism, Marthinus van Schalkwyk, continues to be at odds with what I discern to be the reality on the ground, especially in our rural areas. This drove a colleague and myself back to the numbers to see if we had missed something.

In the Minister’s latest speech he conveys a picture of the first six months of 2012 being significantly better than the same period in 2011. Overseas arrivals were up 17,1%, with the UK up 5% and Germany up 12,2%. On closer inspection, the picture appears a lot less rosy and it gets decidedly more suspect the deeper one digs into the detail.

We compared the first six months of 2012 to the same period in 2008 – the year as we all know as the start of the current recession. On the face of it, it does not look too bad. Our overseas arrivals are up 4,6%. However, our top five markets (UK, USA, Germany, France and Holland) were down 7,5%. Arrivals from the UK were down 14,9% and Germany down 3,7%. France was even worse with a drop of 17,9%. These five countries are significant as they account for 50% of our total overseas arrivals.

But wait, that’s not all! . SA Tourism produces a summary of the monthly arrivals, which are available on the SAT website. They in turn draw their data from Stats SA, which publishes the data monthly as Tourism and Migration (P0351) also available on the web – http://www.statssa.gov.za/Publications/statsdownload.asp?PPN=P0351

This is where it starts to go a little pear-shaped. The arrivals are broken down not only by mode of travel but also purpose of travel. Under the latter, as one would imagine, there are the usual categories of Leisure, Business, Study and Work. I was intrigued to see a fifth category – Transit. I then looked back at the total arrivals, assuming that this would be the aggregate of the former four categories. But no – our total tourism arrival numbers include Transit passengers as well! This means that passengers transiting through SA are being counted as full tourist arrivals! I then delved deeper in an attempt to get the ‘true’ tourism arrivals picture.

Taking transit passengers out of arrivals means that instead of overseas arrivals being 4,8% up comparing the first six months of 2012 to those of 2008, they are in fact 11,6% down!

No wonder the people in our rural areas are being retrenched at alarming numbers – and is this not a contributing reason to why poaching is now so rampant? Rural people have few other opportunities in the formal economy to feed their families .. Do we dare connect these dots to rhino poaching?

What percentage of the total overseas arrivals were Transit passengers? – Well in the first six months of 2012, transit passengers account for a staggering 15,8% of all our overseas arrivals or “tourists”. In July 2012, that number was nearly 21% of our total overseas arrivals and nearly 29% of all our overseas holiday arrivals. The picture, however, appears direr when we look at the emerging markets of China and Brazil. In the same period 32% and 42% of arrivals from China and Brazil were in transit respectively, presumably to travel and work in other parts of Africa, using Johannesburg as their African gateway. In July 2012 these climb to 37% and 48% of our total arrivals from these countries!

Another number that should scream at anyone looking at the Stats SA numbers is the arrivals from Lesotho. SA had 146 000 arrivals from Lesotho in July 2012. Yet, only 45 of these arrivals were here on business. A staggering 145 000 were here on holiday! Surely Minister and SA Tourism, these numbers should strike you as irregular? The Lesotho numbers alone should make everyone at the Department of Tourism question the accuracy of our numbers and our entire tourism arrival collection process.

This is what many of our key trade partners in key source markets and what many private sector players have been saying within SA for the past decade. The key to moving forward and doubling the number of long-haul leisure tourists (the category of tourist that can fill our rural facilities and help alleviate rural unemployment) is to get traction back in our five prime markets.

This requires employing the right people with experience in destination growth, listening to them and holding them accountable to double our long-haul tourism arrival numbers in real terms. The time is right for a change of people and strategy.

It does make sense to look to emerging markets such as the BRICs. But let’s do this realistically. They are not the total panaceas that they are being portrayed. SA is getting significantly less than we thought (especially when we take out the transit passengers) and those who do arrive here are unlikely to visit our rural areas, as is one of SA Tourism’s key directives from Parliament. The nature of tourism from China is usually extremely low value combined with little or no regional spread. This is true of all new markets, which tend to stick to the cities and well-trodden highlights.

In the name of SA, especially of the poorer people in rural SA, it’s time to take off the rose-tinted glasses and look at our tourism arrival numbers with new eyes – and let’s put in place the people and strategies that can easily double the number of long-haul leisure tourists to our shores.

Tourism Update is looking for further authoritative comment on the statistics issue, so please add your views below or email us at editor@tourismupdate.co.za.

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