Cape Town - Maybe it was the milder winter. Or perhaps it was that unfounded fears about ebola and confusion over our immigration regulations have fizzled away.
Whatever it was, early indications are that tourism in South Africa is set for a bumper high season, with overseas tourist arrival numbers up 15.4 percent in the first half the year, according to SA Tourism.
Numbers on the domestic tourism side are also looking better than last year, even though the proportion of South Africans travelling for leisure still remains stubbornly low. At Cape Point, a top destination in the Western Cape, numbers are up 35 percent between May and August compared to the same period last year.
The impending surge in demand for tourism puts pressure on everyone in the industry to reach for new levels of service excellence. Tourism as an industry that spans both the public and private sectors rises or falls based on the quality of the experiences we provide.
These experiences will play a huge part in determining whether we can carry this momentum into future periods. The large numbers of travellers who will partake in what we have to offer this high season will share their stories with others, who might be persuaded to visit South Africa if they expect a positive experience.
Organisations in the tourism sector operate as interlinked chains of experiences. These chains are only as strong as the weakest link. When a traveller is dissatisfied by just one link, they might in future choose to forego the entire chain. This is particularly true for overseas travellers. Just one negative incident can put an overseas traveller, and those they share the story with, off future visits to the entire country.
So, where are we as an industry in terms of service quality?
In 2015, 82 percent of tourists reported no negative experiences, according to the Q1 2016 SA Tourism Index. The worrying aspect is that this is about 10 percentage points lower than 2013 and 2014, suggesting that more people left our shores and businesses last year dissatisfied with their experience.
We cannot afford the same in 2016, so we must look to improve.
There are already concerns about the long queues reported at immigration at OR Tambo, which could potentially have a negative effect on the traveller experience. So while it is important that government put in place the necessary security measures like the new biometric capturing systems at our borders, we need to make sure that we have enough adequately strained staff to work on the new systems. These systems should also be fully operational to ensure overseas tourists first taste of the country is seamless and positive – a must-do as we a long-haul destination.
This applies to the private sector as well, where perhaps we could do more to modernise our systems, innovate with our products, and invest in staff to improve the traveller experience than we have so far. There is simply no getting around investing in staff training in particular for us as tourism businesses.
The link between the calibre of people working in services-industry businesses, and the quality of the experiences customers have in these businesses is well documented.
There are pockets of service excellence in the tourism industry. But, as I’ve said, all it takes is one bad experience for a traveller to be lost to all organisations in the value chain. This is why it is not enough to focus solely on our own businesses. We have to look up and down the tourists’ journey to determine what we can do to improve service quality in the organisations that feed customers to our businesses and those that accept travellers once they move on.
We also need to focus more on getting systematic feedback from travellers. This feedback will give us much-needed specific information on which areas of the traveller’s journey to improve and how, and allow us to build for the next season.
We’re likely to find that all it takes to give visitors a good experience is friendly, welcoming staff members who have a positive attitude and see themselves as ambassadors for their business, city and country.
* Brett Hendricks is General Manager of Thebe Tourism