“Combination of Experiences is Our Selling Point”
With varied experiences ranging from distinct shopping malls at cosmopolitan cities such as Johannesburg and Cape Town to its rich wildlife experience with the famous Big Five, South Africa has everything to offer to the Indian tourists looking for affordable but exotic destination, says Derek Hanekom.
How important is the Indian market for South African tourism and how has it been going so far?
I have to use the right adjective. It’s massively important, it has huge potential for growth. And we got those indications very strongly when we met with the industry in Mumbai in April. From tour operators, travel agents and they all say there is massive potential for growth. It’s already a big market; it’s already in our top ten. But we know that there is room for very significant growth and that’s our challenge – to see what we need to do in order to get that growth.
Although the numbers saw a slight decline in 2015 as compared to 2014, our task is really to get a greater share of it and we think a lot is going on to get that share. It’s not a big jet lag factor, I think it’s 3 and half hours. That’s not a huge time zone difference. The flight is not that difficult although we would like to see it easier, more direct flights from Mumbai to Johannesburg and even to Cape Town and Durban. There is a plan to reintroduce the direct flight.
For the moment I am speaking to tour operators, the flight route via Dubai or via other cities. It’s not as big a factor as other factors, but the fact of the matter is that we got everything going for us to increase tourism from India.
India and South Africa have a lot in common, whether it is the history or Mahatma Gandhi or the Indian diaspora in South Africa.- How do you bank on these elements on tourism?
We do have the melting pot of cultures and clearly there is an element of Indian travellers feeling very much at home in South Africa. There is a very big Indian population in Durban. The people blend and mix with each other, so we have a kind of mix that you have in India. The Indian population in South Africa is exactly the same. You mostly don’t have a clue whether you are an Indian who is Hindu, Muslim, or Christian. So people like this atmosphere in South Africa where there is complete acceptance of people, no matter what clothes they wear or what religion they practice.
I think the big selling point in South Africa is that we have a range of other cultures that are not known to Indians. That gives it an extra attraction, an extra flavour. That’s one thing and of course we have the wildlife experience that you don’t have in India. The Indians, I can image, may sometime like to escape the hustle and bustle of a city like Mumbai that is a very exciting but sometimes a little peace and quiet is welcomed. It is difficult to see the stars in the sky and one wants to get out to a more peaceful environment where the air is cleaner. Some travellers travel to other countries and they just don’t want to eat their own food, I want to go to Thailand and eat Thai food. Others want to do it for some days and then they want home food. An Indian, for instance, may go nuts on not eating spicy food after a couple of days. And we have fantastic Indian cuisine as well not just in Durban but all over the country.
You mentioned the wildlife, actually India is home to a very big wildlife – we have the tiger and you are the land of the lions. So what other different experiences does South Africa offer for Indian tourists?
We have a different kind of wildlife and that is true. Certainly one of the things that would attract me going to India would be to see one day a tiger in the wild. But tigers remain a very threatened species, although their population is now increasing. It is difficult to go and see a tiger in India. It’s very easy to see a lion in South Africa, for instance in Kruger National Park. But maybe not if you are there for one night. You go to some game reserves and you are guaranteed to see all of the big five – lion, buffalo, elephant, rhinoceros and leopard. So India has so much to offer but a big part of our tourism is the safari experience which is not typically the highlight in India. We don’t have the Taj Mahal and the incredible world heritage sites that you have in India. So India is a different kind of destination altogether. Concerning tigers and wildlife, I would like to go to one of your national parks and see the tiger one day. But of course it is a much bigger part of the South African offer. What makes the South African offer a very attractive one, is that in some countries going out to see the wildlife is a fairly rough experience. Either you have to have a lot of money to be able to directly fly to the lodge in a charter plane or something or you go there by 4×4 vehicle. While to go to some of our game reserves you can drive in a small vehicle, in a sedan and you either park your car and rest of it is done by themselves but you can get all the way there not having to travel even on a dirt road. Same with the Kruger National Park, you can spend days doing the Kruger National Park not leaving a tar road. So the infrastructure is very good. But probably selling point is the combination of experiences. It is a long flight to get to South Africa. So we have metropolitan city experiences such as extravagant and exciting shopping experience in Johannesburg, Durban, Cape Town. I would dare say our shopping malls are more exciting than the shopping malls in the USA, we have a water front in Cape Town which has both shopping and the atmosphere of ships.
How important is tourism for South Africa and what are the kind of investments being made? Of the USD 2 million budget, you mentioned that 50 pc will go into marketing. Where d oes India fall under your plan?
India is very much part of that plan and it is a very important source market. There is a programme in department of tourism to enhance the destination. But I cannot say that we have specific target audiences and target markets in mind when we enhance the destination. For instance, we are enhancing the visitor experience at destinations that are unique to South Africa such as the world heritage sites. So we are investing money in destination improvement. We are also investing part of our budget in training and skill development to enhance the visitor experience that includes quality of services received to move towards what we call service excellence. So we are investing in training of chefs, the training of food safety assurers.
India is mostly driven by its middle class. If we look at your top tourists, its the UK, Germany, the US, Netherlands, France, China, Australia, those who are richer than us. So would you call South Africa an elite destination?
Not really it didn’t come out at the meetings we had with the industry. Just one thing though, Australia, in terms of per capita wealth, is a richer country than India. But Indians have more rich people in numbers than Australia. So there are more people with money to travel from India than from Australia. But obviously, there are more people in India that are not in that higher income bracket, people like yourself as you said.
You are not going to stay in these 5 star luxury resorts. You are looking at something more affordable. That actually we do have, that actually distinguishes us from other countries offering safari experiences. Just walking around here you will find resorts such as Sabi Sabi which is a fantastic luxury property. If you walk a little further you will find a three star place which also offers the wildlife experiences. At Kruger National Park you have different levels, the park itself is an affordable place to go to and doesn’t necessarily have all five star restaurants. There are ordinary restaurants in the villages in Kruger National Park and that’s the safari experience. In some countries, you can only really stay in the 4-5 star hotels, you wouldn’t want to stay in other hotels.
But it’s not the same in South Africa as in every city, town and village there are really good guest houses that are quite affordable. But at the same time our grading system is very important to us and it has to meet the minimum standard. Our grading system gives pretty much an assurance of the minimums that you would get if you stay in that place and these are not expensive places. At current exchange rate, South Africa has to be a great value for money destination, I think the biggest cost is really getting here. So you got a whole range of experience, you can go to some of the most expensive places in the world if you wish or you can really have affordable holidays in South Africa as well.
You travelled to India to look into easing the visa proceedings, what is the follow up on that?
In many respects we have made it easier for Indians to obtain a visa to travel to South Africa by going back to where we were before, where travel agents can apply behalf of the client. However, a particular difficulty that we are experiencing in India is the capacity in our embassy or consulates in New Delhi and the consulate in Mumbai to service those applications, especially during peak periods – and that’s what you have in India, you have a kind of a peak period where you have two people trying to process these huge numbers of applications and it could take up to three weeks. Now that is simply too long. I know in some other countries you may have to wait three weeks but we don’t think it’s an acceptable thing, we have a target of 5 day turnaround time. So the challenge for us is to get more people there, to help process those visa applications. It emerged most strongly in our interactions with the industry and travel companies, they say if you can deal with the visa challenge, we guarantee that we can double the numbers in next couple of years. And I believe them, so it becomes an immediate and pressing challenge for us.