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Tourism can create 2m jobs in the next decade – so what’s holding us back?

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Tourism contributes 2,8% of SA’s , which is well short of 11% for each of Egypt and Mauritius.

We have more than 3,000 hotels, not counting the Airbnb and guest house rooms that could easily double or even treble the total number of available rooms in the country.

SA has 10 World Heritage Sites inscribed by UNESCO, among them iSimangaliso Wetland Park, the Cradle of Humankind, and Robben Island.

Of all the countries in Africa, SA looks after its national parks best. It recently Table Mountain National Park to its roster, providing protection for one of the richest floral regions of the world. To the north of the country the Mapungubwe National Park has been proclaimed at the culturally rich Mapungubwe Hill, the site of a community dating back to the Iron Age.

Today South Africa boasts three world-class international convention centres with many more in our secondary and tertiary cities. And, we have created hundreds of authentic experiences of various types, but especially linked to our African culture and heritage, and our struggle history.

The great thing about SA is it has some of the greatest attractions in the world: Cape Town, the coast, Kruger National Park, mountains…. And visitor numbers have been climbing steadily since the World Cup in 2010.

That’s an impressive inventory of tourism assets. We can be doing a lot better to attract more visitors. Tshifhiwa Tshivhengwa, CEO of Tourism Business Council of South Africa, says SA could easily add 2m jobs to the 726,000 currently employed in the sector by 2030.

If it’s that easy, what’s holding us back?

Let’s start with the easy stuff: visas. A new online visa application system is due to be implemented from next month, which should go some way to overturning the absurd system put in place by former home affairs minister Malusi Gigaba two years ago, where Chinese visitors were required to hop on a plane and present their bodies in person at one of two SA consular offices in China if they wanted a visa. And if you wanted to bring your child to SA, you had to show up with an unabridged birth certificate.

Such cluelessness cost the SA economy R1 billion in 2016. Now it seems the government understands how important tourism is to SA and is working to make it easier to visit SA. Visa waivers are granted to visitors from most African and Western countries, including Russia and Brazil – but not India and China.

It is perhaps understandable that the SA government is concerned about illegal immigrants from India and China, but these are also the two countries which could radically alter our tourism sector. We get less than 100,000 visitors a year from each of India and China, while last year Australia welcomed 1,4m Chinese visitors.

SA Institute of Business Accountants (Saiba) CEO Nicolaas van Wyk argues that tourism could be the trigger that gets the rest of the economy going. “There’s a huge downstream benefit that comes from tourism. With relatively small investment and doing some simple things – like making it easier to get visas – we would then see a sharp improvement in retailing and ultimately manufacturing. We should be doing the easy things first, and tourism is an easy way to kick-start the economy.”

There are, of course, the negatives: crime and security, corruption, the Cape water crisis, and discussions about expropriation without compensation. These are the stories that make it into overseas newspapers. They frighten foreign visitors and keep many of them away.

That said, there are many positives: a very welcoming population, excellent quality hotels and restaurants, great service and a weak rand – let’s not forget the weak rand.

It has been shown that a modest investment in tourism advertising produces an outsize return, measured in increased visitor numbers and tourism spend.

Rather than focus on manufacturing as a way to kick-start the economy, we should be focusing on tourism as the engine of our economic recovery.