WEF report highlights South Africa’s travel and tourism challenges

The World Economic Forum’s Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Index for 2015 ranked South Africa in a fairly average 48th position out of a list of 141 countries. Europe and North America dominated the top ten positions, with Japan as Asia’s sole representative among the ten highest ranking countries.

A bit of good news is that South Africa has overtaken Seychelles as the most competitive destination in Africa. Within an international context there is still much work to be done though. South Africa recorded just over 10 million tourist arrivals in 2013.  In comparison number one on the index, Spain, attracted 60 million visitors due to that country’s active prioritisation of the travel and tourism industry.

For a country blessed with such rich natural and cultural resources as South Africa, the varied factors holding back the country’s travel and tourism potential, as highlighted by the report, are cause for introspection followed by decisive action, especially seen against the backdrop of a 25% unemployment rate, one of the highest in the world.

The WEF’s Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Index was based on comprehensive data sets which also makes it a handy proxy for a country’s overall competitiveness. The rankings were based on four main sub-indexes which were in turn divided into 14 pillars:

How enabling is the local environment? The WEF looked at the business environment, safety and security issues, health statistics, human resource development, labour market conditions and  ICT readiness. South Africa’s relative lack of red tape earned it 15th position in the business environment section, which was undermined by the usual culprits: weak security (119th), sub-par health services (114th) and a restive labour market (135th).

Travel and tourism policies and enabling conditions were sub-divided into: the prioritisation of travel and tourism, the country’s international openness, its price competitiveness, and environmental sustainability. Stricter visa requirements (67th), new immigration laws and outbreaks of xenophobia could hamper South Africa’s future tourism competitiveness. Expecting tour groups from the burgeoning Chinese market to apply for visas individually forces that market to consider alternative destinations.

Despite a good performance in forestry management (5th), South Africa needs to increase efforts to protect its 2,800 km coastline and overall biodiversity. Many South Africans would be surprised to know that only 6.5% of the country’s total area is protected, compared to other Southern African countries like Zambia and Botswana, where more than 37% of land is protected. Also of concern is that more than 500 species of South African fauna and flora are listed on the IUCN Red List.

The infrastructure sub-index rated air transport infrastructure, ground and port infrastructure and tourist service infrastructure. South Africa’s tourist service infrastructure scored well, while air, ground and port infrastructure lagged behind international standards, despite the much touted legacy of the 2010 World Cup. An infrastructure spend of one trillion rand over the past five years has not been able to produce a reliable electricity supply, exposing huge gaps in planning ability by the powers that be.

The fourth sub-index rated each country’s natural and cultural resources. South Africa scored fairly well due to a plethora of natural (22nd) and cultural (20th) resources, including eight World Heritage Sites. As one of the world’s 17 mega-diverse countries South Africa has an added obligation to help protect its share of more than 70% of the earth’s biodiversity that is found on less than 10% of the globe’s surface.

The most pertinent conclusion from the index is that South Africa’s policy makers need to start approaching tourism in a much more holistic and pragmatic manner (as opposed to ideologically rigid), if the industry is to realise the government’s stated goal of creating 225,000 jobs by 2020.