SA Tourism has had its share of transformation, and perhaps a touch of schizophrenia, for the last few years in finding the country's tourism niche in the global marketplace.
Helene Slabber, South Africa product and itinerary manager at SA Tourism, did not beat around the bush in a joint workshop presented by SA Tourism and the Southern African Tourism Services Association (Satsa) at the Tzaneen Country Lodge on April 11, 2008. Before delving into the stats, figures and an overview of the country's national tourism framework, she pledged two things: "to answer all queries" and where they fell outside SA Tourism's legal mandate, to point product owners to the relevant parties that would be able to assist with the query.
In her introduction, she outlined that before 1998, SA Tourism was mostly a product organisation with little strategic direction. "It was a case of the tail waving the dog." Then it changed course to an 'experience' organisation. But, it never compared how the South African experience compared to those offered by the rest of the world, "and we never told product owners (tourism organisations) what those experiences are."
The result was SA Tourism promoting South African experiences abroad and tourists not finding these experiences when they came to South Africa. According to Helene, SA Tourism learnt by these mistakes and has finally "found who we are." Today the organisation promotes the uniquely South African combination of experiences in one. "As an example, consider that when people go on safari, they also appreciate the romance associated with the ranger, the typically South African food, the culture displayed in the clothing and décor, as well as the scenery and wildlife" - a combination of typically South African elements that makes the experience unique.
This was central to her message to the delegates comprising product owners and representatives of local municipalities and provincial tourism organisations in Limpopo. She expanded on the global communication strategy of SA Tourism emphasising the need to adhere to global definitions and standards, also with regard to statistics.
This has particular reference to visitors from neighbouring countries that are all regarded as tourists in terms of these international definitions. With regard to regular criticism levelled against SA Tourism about double counts, Helene admitted the recording system does allow a double count, "as we count on passport and as long as Johannesburg remains the hub of business in southern Africa, there will always be a double count."
According to Helene the same thing happens in Australia (with New Zealand) and England. "To date, there is no formula on the table to eliminate double counts, and until we can apply such a formula, we will have a double count." These workshops are aimed at enlightening and involving product owners in the national tourism agenda.