Cape Town - In many ways tourism is one of the success stories of Cape Town’s 20 years of our democracy. With a low barrier to entry and a healthy global appetite for destination Cape Town, tourism has soared in the years since we held our first democratic election, and particularly in the last decade.
Events that appeared to be significant at the time have faded into obscurity and been replaced by the here-and-now of our modern and connected world.
When I cast my mind back to 1994, I tried to remember what I was doing as a 20-year-old, and what I thought our future would look like as I stood ready to make my first vote for our new democracy. The first things that came to mind, strangely enough, were the words “Run, OJ, Run”, the memory of Commodore Computers going bust due to mismanagement, Brazil winning the Fifa World Cup in the US, and the suicide of Nirvana’s frontman, Kurt Cobain.
What I didn’t realise was that tourism two decades ago in Cape Town was a six-week season when a small, mostly white, group of holidaymakers made their way to the Mother City from the then Transvaal. How have we gone from that to the international recognition we enjoy today?
For the most part, market demand and an orchestra of private and public sector players have evolved in tandem and often without precedent, using a series of great opportunities to build a world-class tourism offering.
It’s a Cinderella tale of a city that lay shrouded in secrecy and shame during the oppressive apartheid years, only to emerge as a global contender on the tourism stage.
This year Cape Town was named the Number One Place to Visit by The New York Times, Number Three in the Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel compilation and was also the Number One Place to Go for The Guardian UK.
These accolades stand among many others over the years, including top Tripadvisor Travellers Choice honours and a place in National Geographic’s Fifty Places of a Lifetime. Conde Nast Traveller repeatedly names Cape Town as one of its top world cities and Africa’s top destination, our airport is a recurrent winner of the Skytrax award for Best Airport in Africa, we are a regular feature on the top 10 lists of Travel + Leisure and we were The Telegraph UK’s readers’ Favourite City Worldwide in 2012. I could go on.
But the journey hasn’t been easy and it’s far from over. The first blush of tourism’s potential came in the late 1990s with the failed bid for the 2004 Olympics. Up until this point, tourism had been marked by segmentation; many efficient operators were at work but independently of one another, and without a common purpose.
The 2004 bid galvanised the industry into an effective study of its own offering and its vision for the sector. In addition, Cape Town Tourism was born in 2004.
In the meantime, a concerted national effort was in play to bid for the 2010 World Cup. In 2006, to all of our delight, it was announced that we had won the bid and a monumental build-up began that was to shape the fabric of our tourism industry.
The World Cup was a turning point for Cape Town’s tourism industry. The critical eye of the World Cup media revealed a new Cape Town; one of coffee shops and culture, gritty stories, urban innovation and street fashion. Its tourism space was safe, clean and we looked like a real city.
The green light went on and Cape Town was hot.
The collaborative energy behind the World Cup was also an encouraging taste of the potential for all of our tourism players to work together cohesively and energetically. Within this approach lies the seeds of our future tourism journey. We have reached 20 years in a good state of health – but the next 20 are going to be hard work.
The global tourism market is becoming increasingly competitive and with rising fuel prices, unstable economies and more market noise, Cape Town will have to work hard to maintain a top spot.
This weekend marks the launch of the first World Travel Market Africa. It is a travel trade expo that has been conceived by the creators of World Travel Market, one of the largest travel trade exhibitors in the world. This marks a new era for global travel interest in the African continent, not just from the traditional European markets and safari seekers.
It is also a new space for emerging markets to look at exploring Africa. For Cape Town, the show is an opportunity to nurture relationships with African countries and, particularly, with those from neighbouring sub-Saharan Africa.
Our Seasonal Survey of the months October last year to March this year, showed a marked increase in regional visitors (from neighbouring countries) in our accommodation and Visitor Information Centre figures. Regional visitors who made up 8 percent of visitors in December, peaked at 15 percent in January and dropped a little to 10 percent in February. These are encouraging results.
Cape Town simply doesn’t have the budget to compete in the same spaces as our international rivals. To date our marketing strength has been to remain flexible, adaptive and innovative, but it may also be time to identify some niche markets that are not being pursued by the world’s tourism powers.
As a pioneer in Responsible Tourism we need, as an industry, to seek more cohesion around this issue to ensure it is well supported and promoted as a major drawcard for our loyal European markets and the increasingly curious North Americans.
But our greatest challenge in the next 20 years goes beyond the nice-to-have experiences and right to the heart of sustainability. Tourism holds the keys for many to find economic freedom. What we have witnessed over the past 10 years at Cape Town Tourism is that it is easy enough to start a business in tourism but very hard to sustain it.
To ensure longevity for our tourism entrepreneurs, we have to continue the work that has started; taking an ever-more inclusive view of the tourism landscape.
The historically disadvantaged tour operator must be able to choose if they want to move beyond the stereotype of the “township tour” and into the operational spaces of the big players.
How will we open access to the space and divide up the pie so that the roughly R14.6-billion annual tourism economy reaches more of our people? I believe that the “born frees” will become the tourism leaders of tomorrow; they have the freedom and opportunities that will provide them with a better foundation for success. But their challenges will be different and difficult.
If it was difficult imagining 2014 in 1994, it is tantalising to think what 2034 will have in store for us as a city and tourism destination. With renewed optimism and a dose of reality, the new chapters of our Cape Town tale will unfold, and be told through the next generation of travellers and citizens and the technologies at their disposal. Let’s get started. - Cape Argus