South African tourism is on the decline. There are several factors at play, but given the diversity of experiences that can be had in this country of 58 million people, what's needed is a new and sharper narrative.
Colin Nagy, a marketing strategist, writes this opinion column for Skift on hospitality and business travel. On Experience dissects customer-centric experiences and innovation across the luxury sector, hotels, aviation, and beyond. He also covers the convergence of conservation and hospitality.
You can read all of his writing here.
South African tourism is on the decline. International tourist arrivals in 2019 is down 11.65 percent, or 1.25 million (10.47 million in 2018 versus 9.25 million in 2019), from 2018, according to data released by the country’s tourism board.
There are a multitude of reasons behind this: a drought in the Western Cape region managed to make its way onto international newscasts; there are ongoing concerns about crime and stability that people read about in The Economist. Also, as emerging countries like Namibia, Senegal, Ethiopia, and Rwanda make a compelling and persuasive sell for intrepid tourist dollars, they take share away from South Africa.
It’s always hard to precisely quantify some of the macroeconomic factors and how they come into play. What is clear is that tourism marketing and packaging a compelling narrative play a key role in this, and what the country of South Africa has been doing to promote itself as a destination isn’t working.
A campaign from the past, however, might hold a few clues to how the country should be positioning itself.
The decidedly flat Inspiring New Ways launched in 2012, and the country is still using it today on its website. Before that was Alive with Possibility. Both don’t really map to anything meaningful or ownable about South Africa: inspiring new ways of what, exactly? They ring hollow, like slogans watered down by committee and bureaucracy. Neither of them would look very good on a T-shirt, so to speak.
A Message with Impact
One slogan that did resonate with many South Africans and managed to be memorable, however, was The World in One Country. It had an emotional impact that actually ties into truths about South Africa’s geographic diversity.
Reviving this energy, if not the exact slogan, might be the catalyzing narrative that the country needs to jump-start its sell to the world and get things back on track.
The core goods are there. South Africa is remarkably multifaceted in terms of land, wildlife, ecology, and tourism offerings. It makes up 4 percent of the African continent with a shoreline of 1,770 miles that connects the Atlantic and Indian oceans. There are 20,000 plant species over nine biomes that make up 10 percent of all plants found on earth, and 70 percent of the Cape Floral Kingdom‘s 9,600 plant species are found nowhere else on earth. Some of the cross-border conservation efforts and game reserves are among the most successful at protecting animals in all of Africa.
For a tourist coming from Doha or Dubai, or U.S. or European travelers looking to experience as much as possible with limited vacation days, the value proposition here is pretty clear: Travelers can easily experience a variety of lands, environments, and biodiversity with one passport stamp and avoid having to shuffle through some of East Africa’s notoriously inefficient airports. According to Suzanne Bayly-Coupe, owner of Classic Portfolio, which offers sales and marketing to destinations, South Africa “still offers very good value for money, and travelers have more options of total luxury right down to brilliant B&B’s or self-catering.” She also said that the exchange rate is still favorable.
The South African sell is unique and diverse. It, in fact, lives up to that old tagline. There are the bush safaris that most people have in mind when they think of Africa. But the country also features shoreline, beaches, plateaus, and mountain ranges. Cape Town is remarkably cosmopolitan, and the wine region of Franschhoek is incredible. World-class hospitality exists in the country, including the Red Carnation Hotel Collection properties like the Oyster Box and Twelve Apostles and Bushmans Kloof, Cape Town’s Ellerman House, and top-tier properties in Sabi Sands game reserve and Kruger National Park.
Devon Zdatny, a marketing and analytics entrepreneur from New York City, told me that this wide range of options was the factor in booking her trip. “Beauty and excitement were a given, but the variety of experiences is what made it so ideal,” said Zdatny. “The diversity of our two-week itinerary could have easily been confused for a three-month trip around the globe: safaris, historical tours, adventure tours, wine country, high-end dining, local cuisine, the beach, the city, luxury boutiques, and craft markets.”
So what is the barrier to communicating this? Why is South Africa being seen as old hat? Rumit Mehta of operator Immersion Journeys told me that better education and marketing to some tour operators that may not have years of African experience is necessary. “There’s a need to get people out of the traditional Johannesburg, Cape Town, and safari golden triangle, which has been very successful but now suffers from either fatigue or overtourism. More people need to know about the other variety of experiences in South Africa, notably places like the Tswalu Kalahari Reserve and the Northern Cape.” Mehta also added that the need for basic stability with the troubled South African Airways is also necessary.
Don Scott, the owner of Tanda Tula, a safari camp in the Timbavati, told me, “We don’t seem to have a cohesive message for tourism in South Africa, and there is a lot of disparity in terms of what we should be selling to tourists. However, I believe that we are seeing the recognition from the government, industry bodies, and the tourism products themselves that this situation is no longer tenable and that something needs to be done to turn the tide.”
Also, competitors like Namibia are benefiting from being the cool new option on the block, with requisite epic landscapes suitable for an Instagram world. Rwanda is successfully playing the tourism long game in attracting high-end tourists with the rejuvenation of Akagera National Park and branching out from just being known for mountain gorillas. The stakes are higher and the narratives and thinking are getting sharper.
All the more reason, then, for South Africa to figure out a more ownable sell. Right now the marketing communications seem unfocused, underselling what is a remarkable place and a natural portal to Africa. Bringing this broad diversity of experiences forward is a palatable message that will resonate with travelers.
Photo credit: Shown here is Kadoro, the restaurant at Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve & Wellness Retreat in the Cederberg Mountains in the Western Cape, South Africa. The Red Carnation Hotel Collection