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Date published 04.09.2017

THIS Tourism Month, Andrew Stark, Flight Centre Travel Group Middle East and Africa MD, proposes a united effort and new concepts to grow the retail travel business and South Africa’s travel culture….

I can think of no better time to ignite the discussion around growing the travel industry than the month of September, when the whole world celebrates World Tourism Day.

While over 1.2-billion travellers left their homes to travel in 2016 globally, in Africa the appetite to travel was woefully lower than in other regions.

According to Grant Thornton, an estimated 5.5-million South Africans travelled in 2016, with only 3.6 percent of the South African population able to afford to travel – that is not even a million people.

In addition, Grant Thornton estimates that between only 250,000 and 310,000 South Africans are already travelling on holiday. The encouraging fact this illustrates is that there is an untapped pool of South Africans who have the means to travel but who are not.

With that comes an immediate opportunity for the travel industry to find ways in which to create a culture of travel within this untapped pool and grow the industry for everyone’s benefit.

Of course, we see a market under severe pressure. The cost of travel due to exchange rates, onerous visa requirements and the country’s economy are all factors that influence the propensity of South Africans to travel.

But let’s look at things from another angle. During semi recessionary times or when banks don’t lend as much as they used to, people have more disposable income to travel. They are not buying a car or a house, so what are they doing with their money? Saving it?

I’ll put my rose-tinted glasses away for a second and simply say: South Africans are resilient. Obstacles like currency fluctuations don’t stop them from travelling, they just change their travel behaviour, their holiday destination or, if they’re a corporate, tighten their travel policy. They still travel.

Fostering a culture of travel, like that enjoyed by the Dutch and Australians, and removing obstacles like connectivity, security concerns and difficulty in booking will go some way to stimulating the growth our travel industry so desperately needs.  But how do we do this?

Nothing will be achieved before we have a truly engaged industry – a group of leaders who collectively go beyond their own brands and find ways in which to stimulate growth. Our moral obligation is to encourage the entire industry’s growth, not cannibalise each other by fighting over existing business.

To give you an example, Flight Centre Travel Group hosts a Travel Expo every February and the bigger that expo gets, the more it encourages South Africans to travel, stimulates ideas among consumers on the travel options out there and connects travellers with travel product and destinations. Last year, we saw 22,000 consumers attend the show.

I will be the first to admit that this expo benefits not only Flight Centre Travel Group and our suppliers, but also our competitors whose customers come to the show to see the variety of options for travel available and return to their trusted travel consultant to make their booking.

Furthermore, the very definition of a tourist – someone who leaves their home for more than one night and less than a year – proves that for tourism to be successful, there needs to be ease of travel.

As an engaged and united industry, we should be thinking collectively about ways in which we can make travel more accessible and easier for South Africans. How do inbound and outbound role players collaborate on the unabridged birth certificate issue? Why are visa requirements so onerous for South Africans? Who is fighting our cause internationally?

What about open skies? The benefits are obvious. We have a struggling national carrier and extraordinary airlift from the Middle East. Look at developed countries around the world and you will see that they have liberalised their airspace which in turn has stimulated their economy.

For a country under siege from mass unemployment, travel and tourism represent a labour-intensive opportunity and should be regarded as low-hanging fruit to stimulate South Africa’s struggling economy.

It is quite clear, nobody is going to drive this but the travel industry itself. We need to collaborate to develop a culture of travel among South Africans and remove as many obstacles to their travel as we can; it is a more sustainable future than fighting over a piece of a tiny pie. It is up to us.

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