MPUMALANGA – DOES TOURISM HAVE A FUTURE?
“The food basket, power house and playground of South Africa is how my good friend and colleague, the late Watty Watson, former Member of Parliament and chief whip of the DA in the National Assembly used to describe his home province of Mpumalanga.
Considering the abundant agricultural mineral resources and stunning natural beauty it is easy to see why Watty had such high hopes for the future of the province.
About eighty percent of the country’s electricity is produced in the province however, as a result of bad planning by the national government together with the mismanagement of Eskom has resulted in heavy industries in the province suffering from the excessive cost of electricity and the uncertainty arising from load shedding. Already Machadadorp Chrome has closed down and transferred its operations to Malaysia and Evraz Highveld is under administration and its future is unsure. This cannot be tolerated in a province where unemployment has increased from 26.6% to 28.4 % this year and with a predicted growth rate of only 1.9%
The potential of the agricultural continues to decline because government continues to play a political ball game with Agriculture. The flip-flopping on critical matters such as Land Reform, Land Claims, the capping of Land Ownership and the combined with the uncertainty of whether existing commercial farmers can succeed or not has resulted in many farmers being reluctant to invest capital into their own businesses which has caused fewer job opportunities.
The prospects of the provincial Masibuyele Emasimini programme which aims to develop emerging farmers into the commercial market appears doomed to failure. DA spokesperson on agriculture in the Mpumalanga Provincial Legislature recently said in the agricultural debate that:
“It is incomprehensible that the department can give a farmer seeds to plant, fertilizer to fortify the soil and implements to work his fields at planting season, but when he requests the same implements for harvesting, assistance is denied.
“This programme owns 375 tractors, of which only 289 are currently in use. In Dr JS Moroka Municipality, of the 4 500 beneficiaries that requested assistance, the department has only been able to assist 2 522 beneficiaries.
“Of the 5300 hectares of land that needed ploughing, the department only managed to assist with 3 067 hectares. Effectively, it means that 1 978 beneficiaries were not assisted and 2 233 hectares of land was un-utilised in the previous farming season.”
The continued high incidents of farm attacks still continue to destabilize the sector.
This leaves the Tourism Industry as the hope for the future particularly as the National Development Plan cites tourism as one of the growth pillars of our economy. With tourist attractions amongst the best in the world including the Kruger National Park which offers 2 million ha of flora and fauna, the Blyde River Canyon (3rd largest in the world and ever green), the Makhonjwa mountain range in Barberton with rock formations dating back 3. 5 billion years, the mining village of Pilgrim’s Rest, majestic waterfalls and cultural villages the Provincial Government is not able to get it right.
Today however Mpumalanga tourism is characterized by a declining market share due to insufficient marketing, fragmented programmes and initiatives, lack of skills and poor quality service, shortcomings in infrastructure, poor relationships between the authorities and the industry and the failure to diversify. To be successful the Mpumalanga’s tourism must be diversified and expanded to cover a wide range of product market that include: nature tourism, activity tourism, adventure, golf, eco-resorts, residential (long stay), sports, shopping, industrial, mining, conference and incentive meetings, special interests, festivals/events and entertainment.
The Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Authority (MTPA) and its predecessors has however been plagued by factionalism and internal instability for many years. Leadership instability continues to plague this institution which has sacked its second CEO in a matter of two years.
During a recent tour of key destinations in Mpumalanga national minister of Tourism Mr Derek Hanekom reminded stakeholders, of which the provincial government is a major role player, that “We should acknowledge that we are not the only country with the Big 5 or natural beauty” he carried on to say “we need to give tourists a reason for us to be their preferred choice whenever they think of a holiday…” Mpumalanga has now dropped from the second destination of choice for tourists in South Africa.
The reasons given for this decline were reported as crime, corruption and potholes. Reports of traffic officers demanding bribes from tourists and incidents of robbery in Hazyview were cited as examples of criminality contributing to the decline in tourism. Incidents of poor service received from service providers aggravate the situation.
But these challenges all pale into insignificance when one considers the implications of the new visa regulations that have come into effect recently. The regulations require that all potential tourists from countries requiring visas to enter South Africa have to apply for a visa to South Africa in person, at a visa facilitation centre, in order to submit fingerprints. This is totally impractical in countries such as China, India and the United States where South Africa only has one or two sites available for issuing visas. We should make it as easy as possible to travel to South Africa by implementing an e-visa system so that foreigners can apply and pay online to come to South Africa. In addition, we should allow for the capturing of fingerprints at the ports of entry instead of during the visa application process.
From 1 June 2015 parents have had to provide an unabridged birth certificate of all travelling children as well as having to provide details of the child’s father and mother. This applies even when both parents are travelling with their children. Children travelling with guardians are required to produce affidavits from parents proving permission for the children to travel. There are however some countries that do not even issue these documents and for South Africans wishing to travel an unabridged birth certificate applications can take up to eight weeks to complete.
Airlines will be forced to refuse travel to families not in possession of these documents. As a result if a child is denied boarding by an airline it ultimately means a family can’t travel which will further reduce the inflow of visitors into the Country. The implementation clause should be suspended pending an investigation into international best practices.
Mpumalanga cannot afford any drop in tourism yet, David Frost, CEO of the South African Tourism Services Association, recently reported a 32% year-on-year decline in tourist statistics for June, saying the visa regulations and the recent requirement of an unabridged birth certificate for children were key factors. There have been reports of up to a 70% drop in business from China since October last year. Air China has already suspended the launch of its much-anticipated direct flights to South Africa due to South Africa’s new visa regulations which came into effect on 1 June 2015. A recent UK poll indicated that 61% of respondents said the new visa rules had put them off visiting SA.
Considering that for every sustained increase of seven tourists, one new job is created, should mean the government will take the tourism industry very seriously. A relook at these new visa regulations is urgently required. Government states that they have been introduced in order to reduce illegal child trafficking. This logic is however flawed in that with the thousands of kilometres of unfenced or patrol borders the majority of illegal trafficking from Mpumalanga takes place on these porous stretches of border rather than through recognised border posts.
This is the proverbial ‘use of a sledgehammer to kill a fly’. The unintended consequences to the province’s tourism industry could be irreparable, further aggravating unemployment resulting in an increase in poverty.
Mpumalanga requires a tourism sector to become the driver of economic activity and growth. To achieve these imperatives the provincial government must focus on transforming the tourism industry from a primary factor driven industry which is characterized by limited investment, insufficient accommodation, medium to low quality product and inadequate airlift capacity towards an investment driven strategy, with sustained investment, i.e. new products, destination marketing and human resource development. The ultimate objective of this strategy must be to obtain sustainable benefits for the people of Mpumalanga by generating additional economic activity.
Currently the provincial allocation to the MTPA is R334.7 million for 2015/2016 out of a total budget of R38.7 billion, a mere 1%. Of the R334.7 million approximately R200.0 million is spent on labour costs leaving about R100.0 million for marketing and development. The bulk of this budget is spent on the annual Tourism Indaba leaving almost nothing to develop new markets.
What is required is a concerted effort to promote both local and foreign direct investment into tourism, incentives to promote our natural beauty and heritage thus creating jobs, eliminating poverty and creating a better province for all.
The opportunities are here, but the leadership is weak and the political will is lacking.
What a pity.
Until next time,